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Designing in green

Sustainable building practices may be the wave of the future, if builders get on board

The City of Seattle, like the Resort Municipality of Whistler, is planning to build a new public library. While plans for both buildings are still conceptual, the colour has already been chosen: they will be green.

Green buildings – a general term for buildings which are energy efficient, utilize sustainable materials and building practices and place less demand on municipal infrastructure – are something Whistler is just beginning to deal with.

When final approval of the Houghton brothers’ homes at Taluswood was granted earlier this year a covenant was registered against the homes requiring that they follow "green building" principles. The Kerfoot home at Alpha Lake will utilize a number of green building practices, including a geothermal heating system. The 29 houses that will be built on the B.C. Rail lands will also follow green building methods.

As far as public buildings are concerned, the new library-museum facility and the conference centre renovations will incorporate green building practices. The Four Seasons hotel at Blackcomb is also employing some green elements. As well, a First Nations big house being considered for Whistler and the fire hall planned for Spring Creek may both include green building practices.

Building green has in recent years become one of the most intensely studied aspects of architecture and the development industry. The spike in energy prices in the last year has accelerated interest in green building practices, particularly among cities and municipalities that have to construct and maintain public buildings. With some estimates suggesting that up to 85 per cent of the lifetime cost of a building occurs after construction is completed, interest in green building methods and techniques that can reduce those lifetime costs would seem to be a natural.

But building green can mean far more than just using energy more efficiently. Water consumption can be reduced through choice of plumbing fixtures. Using local building materials is more environmentally friendly than transporting materials from some far off location.

Buildings and many building materials also emit greenhouse gases. Reducing the emissions from buildings can help countries meet the Kyoto protocol for cutting the world’s greenhouse gas emissions by five per cent by 2010 – assuming countries still care about meeting the protocol. In fact, one study for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities showed that municipalities alone could meet up to 25 per cent of Canada’s Kyoto emissions reduction target. Green building practices would play a role in meeting that goal.

The City of Seattle is one of the North American leaders in building green, having adopted a Sustainable Building policy in February 2000. The policy calls for new city projects and renovations with more than 5,000 square feet of occupied space to achieve a Silver Rating using the US Green Building Council’s LEED Rating System. LEED is one of several rating systems designed to determine a building’s sustainability or shade of "green-ness."

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, in his State of the City address last year said:

"We are committing to sustainable building practices for our new and renovated public facilities, of which, with our new libraries and community centers, there will be over 40 in the next five years. We are expanding recycling and waste reduction services and will pursue more renewable energy sources for our power. We are moving beyond discrete institutional programs to integrate stewardship of the environment into everything we do. We can, and must, keep raising the standard for ourselves."

The economic arguments for green buildings are fairly obvious; Schell raises the moral argument. According to the City of Seattle, buildings account for one-sixth of the world’s freshwater withdrawals, one quarter of its wood harvest, and two-fifths of its material and energy flows.

Against this background, the City of Vancouver, the GVRD, Green Buildings B.C. and the provincial government’s B.C. Building Corporation began studying green building standards last year. They looked at four, and in February of this year recommended the LEED standard, with some caveats.

Among the reasons for adopting a green building standard are that it provides governments with a basis for environmental development planning policies, can help reduce the demands buildings place on utility infrastructure, and provides objective measurements of progress toward environmental goals.

"Defining what green buildings are is an interesting exercise," says Sebastian Moffat, principal of the Sheltair Group, a Vancouver design firm specializing in building and site technologies. "A lot of the work has been instigated in Vancouver, with Ray Cole at UBC, who helped spur initiatives by the B.C. government.

"The paradox is, one of the first major conferences in the world on green buildings was held in Vancouver two years ago, but we have only about 10 green buildings in the Lower Mainland. I guess it shows it takes a while for the building industry to change."

One of the agents of change is the B.C. Building Corporation, which has aligned its policy documents around sustainability. BCBC has also been working with Whistler on the library-museum building and suggested Whistler consider making the new facility a green building.

For Whistler, encouraging green building practices ties in with one of the key priorities of the Vision 2002 document: moving toward environmental sustainability. It also complements the Natural Step program, which is now expected to be launched in the fall.

However, Whistler hasn’t officially adopted the LEED standard or instituted a green building policy. LEED is just a measuring stick that will likely be applied against the library-museum and the conference centre renovations.

So what will these green buildings look like? In many instances, green buildings don’t look much different than other buildings. Efficient heating and ventilation systems, triple-pane windows, low wattage lights and waterless urinals are hardly noticed. For example, a 7,000 square metre educational/community complex in Regina doesn’t appear to be anything out of the ordinary, but according to Natural Resources Canada it uses 44 per cent less energy that if it had been built to conventional standards. A computerized lighting system reduces lighting energy requirements and the heating and air conditioning systems are automatically adjusted according to room occupancy. It produces 474 tonnes less greenhouse gas than a conventionally built building would in a year.

Questioned about what a green building may look like, Lisa Campbell, an architect associate at Sheltair, points out that there is a whole spectrum of green-ness, and that most green buildings are still not sustainable. Green buildings aren’t necessarily geodesic domes or something out of a science fiction movie she says, "But I think ultimately, if you were to go the whole distance (to truly sustainable building) then the building is going to start to look different."

But we’re a long way from building sustainable buildings; for now, Whistler is just looking at the library-museum and the renovated conference centre meeting LEED standards. According to BCBC, meeting those standards with the library-museum won’t add to construction costs. Others would argue that green buildings do cost more to build but the return on investment is fairly rapid.

The proposed conference centre renovations went from $7.5 million to $22 million wen plans were revised to produce "the greenest and most environmentally-sustainable conference centre in North America." On the other hand, a high-performance heating, ventilation and air conditioning system and environmentally friendly building materials and practices added only about 10 per cent to the cost of the new Mountain Equipment Co-op building in Ottawa. That money is expected to be recovered in seven years. The building’s expected lifetime is 40 years.

Given that sort of financial return, and the reduced cost of operating the building over the long term, why hasn’t everyone been jumping on the green building bandwagon? As Robert MacPherson, senior planner for Whistler, points out, in most buildings the builder is not generally the long-term occupant, therefore the builder doesn’t have much incentive to consider post-construction costs.

"The builder is not interested and the buyer is not educated," Moffat says. "It’s a fundamental flaw in the economic model. Some people end up spending more on cleaning supplies than on the building because the wrong surfaces were chosen. Buildings have a huge litany of problems because they’re not designed for performance."

Moreover, Moffat adds, there are very few attempts to monitor the performance of buildings. Even the C.K. Choy building at UBC, one of the pioneer green buildings in Vancouver, is no longer monitored on a regular basis.

"We have no way of exposing the faults if we don’t rate the buildings," Moffat says. "That may be the real problem behind the leaky condo crisis."

The disparity between the goals of the builder and the building user points to one of the fundamental elements of building green: it’s a holistic process from concept to end use. It starts with the building site, the building’s orientation on the site, building design, the systems incorporated into the building, the materials used in construction, construction methods, and the use of the building through its lifetime.

The ad-hoc committee that reviewed green building standards for BCBC, the GVRD, Vancouver and Green Buildings B.C. made note of this integrated process in its final report. "An important indirect benefit is that the broad range of issues covered by environmental assessments requires greater communication and interaction between members of the design team and various sectors within the building industry, i.e., environmental assessment methods encourage greater dialogue and teamwork," the committee wrote.

All this is well and good when you’re designing a building from scratch. But with Whistler on the verge of buildout, how many opportunities are there to incorporate green building practices into new structures?

"One of the first sets of green design guidelines developed by Sheltair was for the town of Santa Monica, and they are fully builtout," Moffat says. "They felt it was necessary because they had major public facilities still planned. They wanted to show they are a sustainable community and to set an example for the private sector."

Moffat argues that communities like Whistler, which are near buildout and not desperate for development dollars, can enforce green building policies much more easily than communities that are trying to cope with rapid growth or are desperate to attract development.

"First of all, if there were green building regulations in Whistler you could address the monster house issue, you could make some tradeoffs.

"Secondly, if the Olympics require temporary or long-term construction, green building practices could be applied to those structures."

Moffat adds that buildings also have to be looked at within the context of their community, rather than as individual houses or hotels. Buildings have an impact on things such as transportation, utilities and social interaction, and have to be integrated into the community plans.

On the green community front, Whistler is currently conducting an energy audit, with B.C. Hydro, and working on an energy plan, separate from the Natural Step and the environmental strategy. Among the ideas that have been considered is pumping buildings’ "waste" heat underneath the village cobblestones to melt snow. The move would reduce or eliminate the need for snowplowing in the village.

Moffat says that in addition to being part of an integrated community design buildings should be designed to be adaptable.

"What’s going to be the driving force in Whistler in 20 years?" he asks.

"There’s no one right approach to building green, there’s no optimal solution. You can’t predict the future.

"But green buildings won’t drive us in one direction – just the opposite; it will result in more diverse design and buildings."