low-impact community

Industry sees promise in low-impact communities

Canada not on track to achieve emissions reduction target of 30 per cent by 2030
Wednesday, October 5, 2016
By Rebecca Melnyk

Industry proponents of sustainability are looking beyond buildings and thinking more about community scale in order to help impact decarbonization goals, such as Canada’s long-term greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction target of 30 per cent by 2030.

Currently, Canada is not on track to achieve this target, nor its 2020 emissions target, according to the new Pembina Institute report, Race to the Front, which ranks provinces in terms of emissions and climate change initiatives. Some provinces are behind; others are making strides. Either way, the country is clearly committed to lowering emissions as evidenced in Monday’s federal decision to impose a national carbon pricing system in all Canadian jurisdictions by 2018.

The Pembina report supports the need for this system. It also states that Canadians are in a “clean growth century” and we need to invest in infrastructure that supports a low carbon future. Addressing these solutions also means thinking about resilient communities and how they are currently designed.

Low-impact communities and their renewable energy solutions were highlighted at the recent Sustainable Built Environment Conference of the Americas in Toronto. A panel discussed how to define and inspire these innovative developments, while motivating private capital and turning vision into a market reality.

Jenny McMinn, sustainability consultant for BuildGreen Solutions, the consulting arm of Windmill Developments, which uses a triple bottom line (ecological, social and financial) approach to its projects, reiterated how buildings, along with transportation and waste, is a major contributor to GHGs. These types of developments often spur thoughts about metrics or performance goals, but industry needs to broaden its scope.

“It’s not just about driving down consumption or increasing performance; it’s really about creating an awesome place to live,” she said. “If we can get that right, financials will likely fall into play and, with focus, the other performance goals around environment and social sustainability will follow as well.”

She says to really impact “the bigger carbon story,” there is a need to think on a community scale level, while also looking at other impactors that community designs influence, such as food and transportation. Mixed-use communities are subject to uncertainty and private developers are often the ones taking the risk. McMinn outlined some available tools they can use and suggested ways to help developers get over the risk.

Third party standards

“There are a lot of standards to encourage developers to look at building mixed-use communities, but is there really much uptake?” McMinn posed. “I think there could be, and there needs to be more.”

While the Canadian Green Building Council’s LEED products continue to impact the overall industry (there are more than 3000 LEED-certified projects to date), McMinn pointed out that LEED for Neighbourhood Development (LEED-ND), a guide for sustainable communities, has not gained much traction yet. But it may see more interest once the new LEED v4 comes to market.

“One might question if it’s time to be thinking a little more holistically,” she said. “Maybe the performance, prescriptive-based programs are not having the market traction.”

Three more progressive standards include, The Living Building Challenge, One Planet Living and EcoDistricts, which is in the pilot phase. The Living Building Challenge includes seven performance categories called Petals: Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity and Beauty. Petals are subdivided into a total of twenty imperatives which focus on a specific range of influence. It sets strong, absolute targets like net zero energy, but McMinn added that because of its progressiveness it hasn’t seen much traction.

One Planet Living, similar to the Living Building Challenge in its “desire to move the market,” is more customizable and works to improve a community while using provisions to influence others as well. It employs ten guiding principles from health and happiness to zero carbon. Each self-sufficient community is to reduce its collective ecological footprint by 70 per cent. Windmill Developments, along with Dream Unlimted Corp., is currently pursuing Canada’s first One Planet Community designation with the Zibi development in Ottawa. 

EcoDistricts has been evolving over the years. Since it is in a pilot phase, it hasn’t seen uptake yet. But McMinn said it allows for a true recognition of the time horizon of projects and setting goals that evolve.

low-impact community

Obstacles for developers

Some factors preventing developers from creating low-impact communities include risk and cost.

“Much of that risk is being borne by the private developers and I think that there are hurdles,” she said. “But there are lots of creative ways to get up and over these hurdles. One of the key things, I think, is to first inspire. Not just the core consultant groups you’re about to hire, but broadening stakeholder engagement and looking at it as an opportunity to attract interest from a broader community and potentially prospective buyers.”

She said this will both inform the revenue stream and “help to gather great ideas” on how to impact community design and structure partnerships. Proactive management of risk is also key.

“It’s imperative to set that aspirational vision early on, and not only to engage typical consultants, but also to start thinking about how to monetize various opportunities being set out in the project plan and engaging a broader net.”

BuildGreen has been engaging this path towards net zero and, through analysis, has found actual cost savings are available to private developers to pursue lower energy goals. McMinn highlighted two examples in Toronto, one within a building on a typical pro forma and the other, which included partnering with a Geosource provider. In both cases, the development charge rebate offered by the city is a “high contender” for savings, specifically with residential assets, and also some mechanical and envelope savings from a capital perspective.

Another study looked at what could be done on site to achieve net zero. One of the challenges was around density and the limitations of root space, which supported the idea to also seek offsite partnerships.

Windmill Developments has spent much time looking for partners with long-term interests, such as an integrated services provider or micro-utility, and getting “more players on the table.” They structured a number of business models at an early stage that set up parameters for potential revenue streams and how parties can benefit from it.

“From a community energy perspective, one key outcome we found is thinking about absorption and modularity, and how you can make structure a capital investment so the utility or service provider is making enough revenue to make sense of the initial investment,” said McMinn, adding, “thinking about how to structure the project, both in terms of eliminating capital and operating the best revenue stream possible for the utility.”

Developing a low-impact community

Two kilometres from Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, on an abandoned industrial property that once housed a pulp and paper mill, the Zibi development, a $2.1-billion sustainable, mixed-use community set on 37 acres will take about 10 to 15 years to complete.

So far, the development has involved two provinces, two cities, the National Capital Commission as a planning body, a local conservation authority, heritage buildings, remediation issues due to being a former industrial site, First Nations: Algonquins of Ontario and Algonquins of Quebec, Ottawa Hydro and Hydro Quebec, all in the heart of the nation’s capital.

“A very complex set of stakeholders that maybe would have been a deterrent for many developers,” said Alex Spiegel, partner at Windmill Development group. “We saw it as a challenge, and indeed it was a challenge.”

Zoning was accomplished within six months — quite a feat considering the number of stakeholders involved and negotiating with the First Nations who deem the Ottawa River sacred. The One Living Planet standard, which developers are using to align stakeholders for this very complex project, served as a framework to inform planning, sustainability and the way the project was communicated to those involved. According to Spiegel, the standard provided a strategy for low water and low carbon solutions.

The future mixed-use site is being organized to position a more sustainable neighbourhood, and is taking advantage of the natural features on the property to increase solar access. Streets run on an east-west pattern for maximum solar gain. He commends how the standard sets up principles and works with existing rating systems, how it’s process-driven, not outcome-driven, and how it governs not only design, but also construction and ongoing management.

One principle, for example, includes local and sustainable food to support local farming and healthy, low-impact food. This principle has informed certain features, such as green space with community gardens and buildings associated with agricultural plots, with food produced onsite. Another principle — culture and heritage — will “respect all the different layers of culture” at the site and take the form of public spaces, encouraging interaction in a walkable environment, restoring older buildings and street patterns and respecting First Nations culture.

“We saw One Planet Living as a very holistic way of looking at this community, going beyond specific requirements of individual buildings and looking at it as a complete community,” said Spiegel. “The potential for achieving a great goal, in terms of sustainability, is enhanced when you’re working at this scale.”


Potential energy sources

Scott Bentley, former military engineer and current development manager at Windmill, said the development team identified a number of potential energy sources, including geothermal.

“In terms of building a district energy system, engineering is the easy part — the big challenge is how to make it into a business and do it legally,” he said.

Challenges include capital costs to building a system versus how to make money, and offering credibility to future residents who want to know that Windmill has a viable district energy system. Regulators also look closely to see how people are being charged for energy, along with sub-metering costs, operations and maintenance itself.

As for district energy, a neighbouring Kruger plant uses thermal energy while processing paper and cardboard. The heat is used inside Kruger for the pre-heating of process water, fresh water for showers, and heating coils on seven air handling plants. There are further potential opportunities for heat recovery from the existing Kruger plant. These include three more tissue machine exhausts and flues from the boiler plant. The potential energy available if these systems were implemented is estimated to be around 13.2 megawatts with heat at 55-60-degrees Celsius. If this waste heat is collected and piped to Zibi, it has the potential to meet many of the development’s heat loads.

Other potential energy sources include potential heating and cooling from the Ottawa River, biomass, heat recovery and sewage waste-heat recovery, which has the potential to capture a lot of energy from washing machine use, dishwater and shower water, for instance. Zibi developers say the temperature of sanitary sewer flow is often higher than outdoor air — especially in winter — due to a range of factors such as buried depth, ground conditions, duty (separate or combined) and flow rate. The best use for the heat recovered from the sewers would be to increase the temperature to a level where it can be used as an additional source to preheat the central modular heat pump plant.

Opportunity to partner with site utilities

“Hydro utilities are absolutely frightened with everything going on with technology,” said Bentley. “All of these things are coming at them so fast. So, coming in with a mandate like we did — they could either partner with us or watch us take 4000 doors away from them with them on the outside. In this case, they had an opportunity and came to us with open arms.”

For utilities, it’s a higher risk and may not make a lot of money. But Bentley noted what they will do is learn how to employ these technologies in conjunction with a developer.

In this case, Hydro Ottawa went back to its board with a list of opportunities, such as distribution, billing, a lighting and public realm program where an operator controls lighting speakers, and Wifi opportunities, to name a few.

“Infrastructure and the Internet of Things is a whole other element we discovered in the process,” Bentley noted.

With a district energy system, every unit on the site needs a sub-meter to track energy use. But in order to connect sub-meters, there needs to be a fibre optic backbone — this leads to an opportunity to provide internet to people.

In terms of grants and government subsidies, the government doesn’t always advertise their availability. Bentley noted the best money the team spent was hiring a grant writer to identify and apply for grants, such as from Enercare, which has significant funds for these types of projects that involve green technology. Another excellent program, he said, is Hydro Quebec that looks at the entire development, district energy and zero waste — its goal is to get people off the grid.


Feature photo of Zibi development courtesy of Windmill Developments

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