Green Awakening

Last fall the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada launched its National Continuing Education Program with Sustainable Design for Canadian Buildings–SDCB 101 in five cities across Canada: Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal and Moncton. Presented jointly with the respective provincial associations, the program’s inaugural October 19 session in Calgary also marked the launch of the Alberta Association of Architects’ Continuing Education initiative. The speakers included sustainable building enthusiasts and experts: University of British Columbia building scientist Ray Cole, Peter Busby and Susan Guche of Vancouver-based Busby + Associates Architects, Vivian Manasc of Manasc Isaac Architects of Edmonton and Blair McGarry of Keen Engineering’s Vancouver office.

The session presentations and accompanying Sustainable Design Fundamentals Manual included some sobering data: approximately 40% of worldwide energy use is consumed for heating, cooling and power provision to buildings; approximately 40% of the world’s raw materials are used in buildings; Canada’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are increasing by 1.5 % annually. Globally, natural scientists have noted changes in ecosystems: the retreat of certain tree species northwards to follow cooler climates, reduced water levels in the Great Lakes, changes in fish species, a rise in sea level and melting of polar ice caps. The reason the atmosphere has enabled our ecosystems to flourish is because carbon is sequestered, not released.

In light of global environmental problems, proponents of sustainable building wish to make it more mainstream. This could be accomplished through simple principles such as siting buildings to take advantage of passive solar gain, designing roof overhangs in response to sun angles, utilizing natural ventilation instead of creating sealed environments, and using local materials, including native plant material in landscape buffers. These are not new ideas; they represent common sense consideration for sense of place, local tradition, material, technology and expression.

What has instead become second nature is the use of convenient technology. Specialist consultants make buildings stand, breathe, and move through the use of fossil fuel-generated power, producing projects that consume non-renewable energy. Low-tech problems are addressed with high-tech solutions. While in many European examples occupants add extra clothing in response to temperature changes, North Americans turn up the thermostat. What message are we as architects sending to the public?

Too often sustainable design is viewed as a specialized type of architectural practice rather than an approach to building that informs every architect and project. Some common arguments are that clients aren’t interested in sustainable initiatives since their ownership of the building is limited, payback time is too long, or sustainable features cannot be accommodated in the budget. Furthermore, architects’ liability for the building is considered to be too great, and bread-and-butter developer projects are still required to keep firms in operation. With all these supposed disincentives, what drives the initiative to make sustainable building a common reality?

A variety of assessment tools and incentives are available to assist architects in making sustainable choices. These include Natural Resources Canada’s Commercial Building Incentive Program (CBIP) and C-2000 Program for Advanced Commercial Buildings, the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) and Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED), and standards such as ASHRAE 90.1 (1999). These programs address issues such as embodied energy, stratospheric ozone depletion and carbon dioxide emission throughout the manufacturing, construction, and operating processes. But, beyond projects produced by only a handful of firms–24 are listed in the SDCB-101 Sustainable Design Fundamentals Manual–there are few that even make an effort toward sustainability, for the reasons mentioned above. The tools exist, but their use is not widespread.

In addition to the resistance to develop environmentally responsible buildings, there is another problem, illustrated in a discussion of the distinction between “green performance” and “sustainable building.” Green performance suggests token efforts made to give buildings a “green” label. If used as a marketing strategy but not applied with conviction–often referred to as “greenwash”–the term “green building” will lose credibility with the public.

In the interest of sustainability, buildings should be built to last and to be easily retrofitted or deconstructed in response to changes of use and/or climate changes expected to take place over the next 50-100 years. The accumulation of embodied energy in material harvesting, transportation, production, and lifetime operation and maintenance lends strength to the notion that material and energy use has environmental consequences in terms of greenhouse gas contributions, habitat despoliation, and resource depletion. Buildings contribute between 30-50% of total greenhouse gas emissions; this is a staggering amount. While we continue with business as usual, others feel the effects.

At the 1997 Kyoto Accord meetings, Canada committed to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to 6% below 1990 levels by 2010. The present rate of emissions will put Canada at 30% above 1990 levels by that time. If existing and new building stock contribute to 30-50% of those emissions, then it is the responsibility of the architect, his or her consultants, and the builder to work together to make a significant contribution towards Kyoto’s critical goal. If there ever was an opportunity for architects to make a significant contribution globally, this is it.

Architects can best serve the public by addressing the challenges of the Kyoto Accord. Presentations such as the recent RAIC continuing education session are relevant to both the public and practitioners. As Ray Cole pointed out, the profession must address this vital question: “What is the quality of what we build now, and what will it represent for future generations?” The definition of quality must now include sustainability. By reducing GHG emissions in buildings by 25%, architects and design teams have the power to achieve 15% of Canada’s Kyoto commitment within five years. Ultimately, the construction industry must shoulder the responsibility for 40% of Canada’s Kyoto commitment. Sharing, practicing and promoting the contributions architects can make will move us towards restoring the relevance of the profession in the public eye.

In a closing statement, Edmonton architect Barry Johns asserted: “addressing the issue of sustainable building allows us the opportunity to reaffirm the value of the profession of architecture to the public.” This may turn out to be the most important legacy of this inaugural education program.

Patricia Glanville is an architect and landscape architect in Calgary.