Markham’s energy-focused Buttonville project

How pre-planning and amenities could help drive a future community's energy efficiency
Thursday, November 27, 2014
By Rebecca Melnyk

A couple years from now, construction workers will put shovels to ground as they build a whole new urban community on what was once a grassy air strip in the 1950s. As Markham’s Buttonville Airport slowly packs up its planes and prepares to close for good, planners are now defining the specifics of how to challenge conventional suburban development, pushing energy efficiency to the top of the list.

The 170 acres of open fields, acquired during an era when energy sustainability wasn’t a prime consideration in major developments, will transform into a people-centred, car-reduced neighbourhood built on the backbone of countless council meetings, approval processes and a high-level energy study, led by Doug Webber, executive vice-president at Halsall Associates.

The energy study, conducted for Cadillac Fairview, the developer of the project, is now being used as a source of guidance for planners as they move forward. ”Very early in the planning stages, Cadillac Fairview wanted to understand how sustainability would play out,” says Webber, “with a specific focus on energy and what revisions ultimately affect the carbon intensity of that community.”

First, Webber’s team looked at overall sustainability and what factors to consider, such as how much energy the community would use, where it would come from, how they would make sure it was secure and how to preserve biodiversity.

“It all starts with data,” Webber points out. By looking at data that exists in other communities, Webber was able to give feedback on where energy can be consumed in a similar community, whether it’s electricity, gas, transportation, heating or cooling.

But as the team reached the second phase of the study, a key trend emerged from this data.

One of the most exciting aspects of the study was learning about the reasons people choose their cars over other modes of transportation. “The thing that interested me most is that we use our cars almost twice as much for stuff other than getting to work—getting to work is only a third of how much we drive,” says Webber.

The reality is people are driving to places like grocery stores, restaurants and shopping centres more often. “It’s reasonable to think, if we can build a community with all the amenities people need, they would actually use their cars much less, even in a remote urban centre,” Webber points out, adding that by doing so, developers might not be able to impact commuting, but they sure can impact other reasons for driving.

In Markham, the average person drives 27 kilometres per day, about nine of which are for commuting.

Along with actual data from comparable communities, Webber and his team found that, theoretically, with the right suburban design, there would be a 30 to 40 per cent drop in car use.

Buildings could also reach reasonable efficiency targets since they would all be new builds, both a rarity and an advantage in urban developments, which normally include a number of expensive retrofits. “Building in every market in Toronto, whether it’s rental, residential, commercial—in every case we’ve been able to create buildings that perform at almost half of the average in a market condition,” Webber emphasizes. “In this case, he says, it’s reasonable to set a target of all buildings being 50 per cent better than the average stock in downtown Toronto.”

While it remains to be seen how all these ideas will materialize, the potential is there to create a community with a significantly smaller carbon footprint.

Subsequent to cutting energy greenhouses gases in half through smart building design decision, three carbon neutral options include buying offsets—the least inexpensive choice—buying green power from a provider and, lastly, creating carbon neutral energy on-site.

“The really fascinating thing is, when we did the math, we found we could cut GHGs to ten per cent with a ten-year payback,” he says. Yet, that number can’t be reached without implementing a district energy system or, to be truly carbon neutral, building a biomass plant.

There are, however, many barriers to introducing a biomass system, that Webber says are more related to regulatory issues, risks and lack of track record, which prevent them from materializing most of the time.

John Genest, principal at Malone Given Parsons—a lead planner in the development— adds transporting the biomass and burning it might be difficult to achieve in a high density area with lots of people. “Energy’s viability is so contingent on the user and built space density,” he says, adding many of the newer technologies won’t be determined until the approval process is further ahead.

However, Genest is excited about the prospects coming out of the initial energy plan and points out the value a district energy system will bring.

“There was a very early commitment to energy, a very early recognition that the scale of the site and the density would afford district energy and benefit from what it brings in terms of economy to both developers and users,” he says.

The market is clearly shifting to higher expectations, standards and certifications. Developers in certain areas outside downtown Toronto, like Oakville for instance, are beginning to focus on the highest LEED certifications and sustainability to attract a wide variety of tenants.

As the Buttonville development moves from plan to actual community, the site will encompass an estimated 2,600,000 square feet of office space, almost 1,000,000 square feet of retail and commercial space and more than 3,000,000 of residential property.

And since energy has been an initial concern from the beginning, the ideas from the study can potentially integrate into the community as a whole. Such early engagement is critical.

“When people say sustainability costs too much, it’s because they didn’t start from the beginning; it’s because they’re making changes, rather than planning something, and it’s because they have a habit of doing things,” adds Webber. “Breaking habits is hard. The easiest way to break them is to start early.”


Rebecca Melnyk is online editor of Building Strategies & Sustainability and Canadian Property Management.