Setting benchmarks in Toronto’s 2030 District

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Toronto recently became the first city outside the United States to join a network of 2030 Districts—a collective initiative that supports district-wide reductions in building related energy, water and transportation emissions.

More than 30 private and public organizations that include founding sponsors Sustainable Buildings Canada and the Ontario Association of Architects, spearheaded the Toronto 2030 District, which spans from Dupont Street to Lake Ontario, and the Don Valley to Bathurst Street.

Below, Jeff Ranson, executive director of the Toronto 2030 District, explains what this means for buildings in the area and details plans to target immediate reductions and achieve carbon-neutrality by 2030.

One goal is to drive an immediate 70 per cent reduction in new builds and have new construction be carbon-neutral by 2030. How will the program support and empower building owners and developers to meet these targets?

First, let me put these numbers in perspective. We are aiming for 70 per cent less energy use than the national average in 2003. So, when you factor in the updates to the building code, plus the incentives under programs like the Toronto Green Standard, it`s not unreasonable at all. What we are doing is developing those average energy use Intensities for 49 different building types so that designers and developers know what a 70 per cent reduction means in terms of establishing an energy budget for design.

Second, hitting these performance levels is becoming less of a technology challenge and more of a systemic challenge. We now have examples of carbon neutral office buildings like the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which was just awarded Living Building Certification. There are plenty of great architecture and engineering firms working in Toronto that can figure out how to design to these levels. The challenge is overcoming hurdles, which include financing building performance, capacity building among designers and trades, establishing economies of scale for new technologies and allowing for more innovation in building regulations.

These are not challenges that individual developers, design firms, NGOs, and industry groups can address on their own, but we believe that the Toronto 2030 District, by bringing all of these groups together, can develop solutions to unlock further conservation opportunities.

How will the program respond to the different characteristics between buildings?

As mentioned above, we start off with average energy use intensities (eKWh/m2) for 49 different building types, which provides individual buildings with a general idea of what ball park they should fall into. Second, by supporting benchmarking initiatives, building owners can see where they fall within the range of buildings in their category. Third, the Toronto 2030 District is assembling affinity groups to convene stakeholders from different building sectors (i.e. office, healthcare, retail) to support community led program development. We are designing the District as a way for individual sectors to tell us what they can achieve, what barriers they are hitting, and what assistance they need in areas such as technical support, incentives, training, etc.

What are some other ways the initiative plans to promote district-wide benchmarking and what programs does it hope to leverage?

The most significant program on the horizon is the City of Toronto Energy Reporting and Benchmarking policy which is being developed as we speak. If this policy is passed, then the city will have a huge amount of data on building performance. But having data is just the foundation—what do you do with that data? The 2030 District sees this as a great opportunity to take this data and use it to help utilities, training providers and conservation groups better target their programs based on greatest need and opportunity.

The other exciting development is the Energy Star for buildings by NRCan – this creates a common building portfolio management and benchmarking platform based on the program that is nearly ubiquitous in the U.S. The more building owners using the platform, the more useful it is. Getting it adopted by smaller building owners and non-commercial properties will take some support and training, in which the 2030 District and our partners can play a role. Also, the development of tools, like the Green Button API developed here in Toronto by MaRS Data Catalyst, is working to make utility data easily accessible to customers and their approved third parties, which will  have a huge impact on the ease of tracking, benchmarking and reporting building performance.

We also encourage participation in benchmarking-based challenges like the Race to Reduce, which provided a competition-like environment around building performance improvements in the commercial sector. If the program is renewed for another cycle, the question becomes how can we get more buildings involved, particularly smaller commercial spaces? And how can we help other sectors like multi-residential develop similar programs?

Any challenges you’re expecting in regards to implementation?

Maintaining momentum will be the biggest challenge. Along with Toronto 2030 District founding sponsors, the Ontario Association of Architects and Sustainable Buildings Canada, we’re engaging hundreds of organizations and professionals in an effort to influence long-term district-wide emissions reductions. The time and complexity of the project can be overwhelming, and in the short-term, the gains can be hard to see. But this is a long-term effort, and the steps we take today are critical to the final result, so investing in establishing a strong foundation is paramount. Getting people to buy in early takes leadership and vision; keeping them engaged takes work.

How will Toronto’s 2030 District work with other districts in the network? 

We are part of a network of 2030 Districts (eight across the U.S. and more in development). At this stage we are collaborating on a number of fronts, from how we structure our individual programs to best practices for collecting and reporting data. We are all in this for the common goal, but there is also a little friendly competition. Which cities have the most buildings committed? How are they performing? At the end of the day, a successful 2030 District indicates that a city is at the forefront of building performance and that’s attractive to businesses and residents alike—so we are all pushing each other to succeed, but also showcasing our own city’s achievements.

Are the benefits only district-centric or do they extend beyond boundaries?

The district boundaries have advantages for creating a community approach—it’s a manageable size, has highly sophisticated building expertise, strong existing professional and community networks, and almost every building type imaginable, but the benefits certainly extend far beyond the boundaries. We see the Toronto 2030 District as a way to address issues that affect the whole city, and a place to pilot strategies that can be rolled out across the city or across the country.


Jeff Ranson is executive director of the Toronto 2030 District. He has been actively involved in leading market transformation for the built environment since 2002. Additionally, Jeff is a lead facilitator for the Enbridge Savings By Design builder conservation program and was the lead instructor for the Canada Green Building Council’s Certified Sustainable Building Advisor program. He also serves as an executive for Sustainable Buildings Canada.