How to incentivize and accelerate low-carbon building designs, with lessons from Vancouver

This op-ed is part of an ongoing series of conversations between SvN and city building and policy experts who are leading the way in helping the building industry achieve a net-zero future.

Architects and planners must decarbonize the construction industry, and we have less than ten years to make real progress to stay within 1.5 degrees of global warming. Buildings are responsible for almost 40% of global annual carbon dioxide emissions, so how can we establish goals to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to reach net-zero levels by 2050 or sooner?

I had the opportunity to chat with Melina Melina Scholefield from the Zero Emissions Innovation Centre (ZEIC) in the second episode of the SvN Speaks series. Melina is the Executive Director at the Metro Vancouver Zero Emissions Innovation Centre (ZEIC) and the former manager of the Sustainability Group and Green Infrastructure for the City of Vancouver. She is at the forefront of advancing many of Vancouver’s climate protection programs, including green infrastructure and green building programs.  

The City of Vancouver has already achieved significant progress toward low-carbon construction. The City is on track to reducing overall carbon pollution by 50% by 2030, with zero emissions by 2040. This past May, Vancouver City Council passed new legislation for embodied emissions and building retrofits. While achievements like these are laudable, what is the political and economic climate to make these goals a reality? 

According to Scholefield, Vancouver has implemented key climate-positive policies for many years. Since 2007, the City has seen a net reduction of 15% in overall GHG emissions, despite Vancouver’s overall and continued growth. “With climate action, we need to steepen the downward curve, encouraging early adopters to try new policies and practices to achieve net zero,” adds Scholefield.  

Many architects remember when Canadian municipalities adopted LEED Silver as the benchmark performance indicator. At the time, everyone thought it would slow the approvals process and increase costs, a fear that turned out to be untrue. The development community embraced LEED Silver and then built to higher performance standards. Today, Vancouver is working with comparatively much more stringent Passive House standards. The City has recently introduced a rezoning policy requiring a Passive House standard or equivalency, leading to a significant proliferation of Passive House buildings, and resulting in one of the highest concentrations of such buildings in North America. And this past May, City Council introduced new requirements for existing buildings to address carbon pollution.  

Scholefield enthusiastically noted that starting in 2024, the City will introduce carbon limits, starting with commercial buildings over 100,000 square feet. By 2026, she expects all multi-unit buildings and commercial buildings greater than 50,000 square feet will have a carbon limit. Moreover, Vancouver continues to regulate embodied carbon. In the beginning, they measured and assessed embodied carbon. By 2025, they hope to achieve 10-20% reductions in embodied carbon with a 40% reduction by 2040. Their approach is to start gradually—always supporting and encouraging the early adopters—followed by wide-scale regulation over time. Grounded in reality, Scholefield added, “If the construction industry doesn’t understand the City’s approach in straightforward economic terms, they will evolve without us.”

When asked about the preferred way toengage with local builders to transform their thinking about embodied carbon and life-cycle analysis, Scholefield speaks ofa variety of not-for-profit and industry-based organizations trying to advance this discussion and engage closely with industry. She cites one example: a decade ago, you couldn’t easily get triple-glazed windows and had to seek out suppliers in Europe, an expensive and time-consuming process. Because of policy changes and Passive House equivalency, it now makes economic sense for local window manufacturers to make high-performance windows for local customers in British Columbia. 

Online programs and resources help as positive enablers and catalysts for climate change. Scholefield cites (Zero Emissions Building Exchange), initially formed by the City of Vancouver and now hosted by ZEIC to support industry knowledge, create spaces for learning and accelerate market transformation. ZEBx is working with other financial partners like Vancity, which is actively looking at decarbonizing its portfolios and has a keen interest in educating, identifying, and transitioning those making investment choices to pick options with a more significant environmental and social impact. It represents yet another variable in the complex equation to a fossil-free future. is another helpful resource funded by the City of Vancouver and CleanBC to incentivize the construction of high-performance housing. The forestry industry remains a well-funded aspect to the BC economy, so it is not surprising to see the growth of Forestry Innovation Investment (FII) as another invaluable industry-support mechanism.  

Scholefield clearly expressed the need for consensus-building along with policies, regulations, or technology. Building a network of leaders and organizations with common interests is vital, especially when acknowledging accelerators and innovation hubs. Other considerations, especially over the past five years, include nature-based solutions in private developments, parks, roads and infrastructure. Like many cities, Vancouver is challenged with servicing its stormwater management and water quality. She notes, “We have other complex drivers, including climate adaptation, affordability, equity issues, and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”  

The economic case for building a post-carbon future has been made in BC. ZEBx recently examined the costs for building seven buildings near net-zero construction. Two out of those seven achieved cost savings of approximately 30%, with most of the remaining buildings minimally above or below a baseline cost threshold. “The era of a 15-20% premium on designing net-zero buildings is just not holding up anymore,” says Scholefield. As for what’s next? It’s going to be changing. There will be increasing carbon taxes, energy costs, and an increased need for cooling and for improving indoor air quality. “All of these aspects to building and design will be increasingly important. And so, better to get it right up front for buildings that will help us for the next 50-75 years,” she adds. These inspiring words come from the context of a progressive-minded municipality that understands the links between effective policy, legislation, incentives, technological innovation and industry-wide consensus-building necessary to build a post-carbon future. 

You can watch the full conversation on SvN Speaks here. Episode 5, a conversation with Dunsky Energy + Climate Advisors President Phillippe Dunsky, can be viewed on LinkedIn Live on Wednesday, July 13 at 12 noon EST.

Sam Dufaux is a Principal at SvN Architects + Planners. This op-ed is part of an ongoing series of conversations between SvN, city building, and policy experts leading the way in helping the building industry achieve a net-zero future.