What is sustainability to the building sector?

Climate change has shifted the conversation from sustainability to resilience
Thursday, August 20, 2015
By Rebecca Melnyk

What is perhaps the foundational definition for sustainable development—referenced in the United Nations’ Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report—is a broad concept reconsidered and reinterpreted since it first informed the building industry in 1987.

A lot has happened to the environment over the past 28 years. While the idea of a sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” is still a grounded and pertinent definition, some sustainability experts point out present-day factors must be considered, while at the same time, envisioning a future where sustainability is a given.

“I’d like to believe we’ll get to the day when sustainability is not part of the conversation because the need to design things sustainability is so obvious that we just stop talking about it,” says Paul Dowsett, founding principal architect at SUSTAINABLE.TO Architecture + Building. “It’s just what is done. Period.”

What sustainability means within the building sector?

For now, Dowsett, who focuses mainly on residential assets, says, beyond the older, “one-size-fits-all” definition, sustainability is the magic that happens at the intersection of affordable, healthy and energy-efficient designs.

This combination of factors is realized through a design process that aims to reduce energy demand as optimally and passively as possible using what nature offers for free, while thinking of other issues, such as building orientation. Some extra money upfront reduces energy demand and long-term cost, while creating less reliance on mechanical systems.

Yet, with the advent of myriad technologies marketed as sustainable, Dowsett sees a lot of confusion in the marketplace with people thinking that “expensive gizmos” like solar panels and geothermal heating, for instance, will make them more sustainable.

He only considers these active systems after the passive approach is implemented using “unsexy, unglamorous” features, like good insulation and air tightness—methods taught back in the 1970s that still seem to work.

For Mark Hutchinson, director of green building programs for the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC), the concept is not only about a building’s ability to sustain something, but also how the building fits into the larger landscape.

“For some people sustainability or the act of being sustainable is an absolute,” he says. “You’re either sustainable or you’re not. Ultimately people are smart enough to understand that the efforts we’re making to reduce the environmental impact of buildings doesn’t yet truly make them sustainable.”

How such buildings affect the fabric of communities is a popular part of the conversation now.

“If you build an entirely sustainable building out in the middle of nowhere, how will people get to that building?” he questions.  “Likely in a vehicle which isn’t sustainable.”

Looking ahead, Hutchinson says LEED is driving more interest in materials, their impact on health and the environment. A building operating in a sustainable way (energy efficiency, for instance), may use materials that were produced in a manner which negatively impacts the environment.

But what remains critically important in his eyes is the industry’s ability to gage the relative performance of today’s buildings with what was built in the past in order to differentiate what is better.

Keeping in line with this thought, Graham Finch, principal and building science research specialist at RDH Building Engineering Limited, says sustainability should also mean there is more effort to balance the social, economic and environmental aspects, while asking what makes the building more sustainable than previously built structures. The same goes for existing building stock and renovation work.

Finch, who is accustomed to consulting clients on building enclosures and facades, says much of his work ties into sustainability and energy efficiency, but he often sees much of the industry overlooking the notion of durability.

“We see many new green building products being introduced to market, but all too often they haven’t done their homework or testing and fail prematurely, which isn’t sustainable at all.”

“Recently, we have seen the rise of wood-frame construction to new heights, largely due to the sustainable nature of wood and its ability to sequester carbon,” he adds. “But we need to be careful of how we design, construct and maintain these buildings to make them more durable, otherwise we lose all of the sustainable benefits.”

RDH has been involved with the building enclosure design of many innovative new facades. Finch says durability and resiliency considerations are “front and centre during design and construction decisions” and wrapped into the discussion on sustainability.

To Peter Easton, senior principal and manager of WSP’s sustainability team in B.C., there also has to be a business case for sustainability in the minds of most developers and property owners. As his clients are rooted in the commercial sector, the conversation must include both economic and environmental factors.

Sustainability evolves through climate change

Some North American developers see economic and financial considerations (attracting high-quality tenants, for instance) as the main drivers behind sustainable developments, as opposed to climate change, which is a key factor in foreign development.

WSP encourages a future ready process for building designs in countries like the U.K. where design teams consider constructing a building to cope with, for example, increasing temperatures or rainfall over the next 50 years, rather than face inevitable retrofits.

“Our company is beginning to implement that in North America where it will have a larger impact as the marketplace is much bigger over here,” says Easton. “The engineering community is thinking about it; some developers are, but not all.”

With catastrophic events like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy prompting more awareness of how severe weather impacts the occupancy of buildings, the idea of how a building can regenerate society post-destruction is playing a larger role in the sustainability movement.

“Climate change has shifted the conversation from one of sustainability to a conversation about resilience,” says Dowsett. “We need to look at resilient development as how the building will withstand severe weather, but also look at how people can return to normalcy as quickly as possible.”

Through research, SUSTAINABLE.TO found that in the aftermath of Katrina, people in New Orleans were able to occupy homes designed pre-electricity, dating back to the 1800s. Such findings led to the architects to use passive solar and natural ventilation as a means to develop a housing solution where people could function without electricity. These strategies were refined for a post-Sandy reconstruction solution for New York.

Climate change has been impacting the sector for many years now, but it wasn’t a main driver of sustainable development back in the 1970s, according to Hutchinson. Towards the end of that decade, other issues like the oil crisis prompted efforts for reduced water consumption and energy use.

Now, climate change is the overarching element in sustainable conversations because it remains one of the largest threats facing humanity. In 30 years, 70 to 80 per cent of current buildings will still exist.

“We often forget about the opportunities to improve existing buildings and make them more sustainable,” adds Finch. “There’s a lot of work with new construction and green building programs, but a lot of attention is being missed in the retrofits of existing buildings.”

“The most sustainable building is a building that has not been built yet,” says Bala Gnanam, director of sustainability and building technologies for BOMA Toronto. “The relative environmental impacts of new construction versus renovating or reusing existing buildings over the course of a building’s life span is huge.”

Gnanam adds that a new and energy-efficient building, constructed according to industry recognized standards and adhering to operational best practices, could take between 10 and 80 years to overcome the negative impact on the environment created during the construction process. Meanwhile, a retrofit of an old building would take roughly 30 per cent less time to overcome the environmental impact of upgrading the building to the same level of performance.

Furthermore, he says, when comparing buildings with the same energy performance, savings from retrofit options are said to be between 5 and 45 per cent more than a new builds.

From coast to coast

The belief in the latter part of the 20th century, that people could design the same building anywhere in the world, is no longer applicable, and a way of thinking that has negatively impacted the development industry.

“Looking at the local climate is part of what modern development missed,” adds Dowsett.

Now, motivations behind sustainability vary across the country. While hot humid summers in the southern U.S. cause a dehumidification and cooling driven climate, cities like Toronto must balance this climate with heat driven winters. The orientation of the sun in the sky must also be considered. In the south, while the sun is higher, allowing more access to solar heating, there is less need for it. Further north, there is more need for solar heating, but less opportunity to harness the sun, especially in winter.

“We can be sustainable in different respects to varying degrees,” says Hutchinson. “In the prairies and in B.C., water is going to be a bigger issue and might lead developers to reflect that in their buildings and landscape.” He says topics like water reuse and replenishing water tables, once unfamiliar to Canadians, will in the future become less foreign.

“B.C. is experiencing the first summer of drought conditions with lower water reservoirs and water restrictions, which will grow worse as the summers become warmer,” adds Easton. “The profile of water consumption is going to rise in the minds of designers and developers from here on in.”

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

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