Remaining Positive

Text Douglas Macleod

Over the past few months I had the privilege of interacting with some of Canada’s top engineers, architects and social scientists in the field of sustainable design, and their work suggests a sea change in architecture and design that will make computerization look like a minor disturbance. Exemplary programs such as Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s EQuilibrium Sustainable Housing Demonstration Initiative ( have shown that it is possible with today’s materials and technologies to construct buildings that are “net zero”–in other words, they produce as much energy as they consume. In the near future, however, we may be able to create buildings that are a benefit (rather than a detriment) to the environment, and this is the promise of resource-positive design.

I first heard the term “resource-positive design” from Toronto-based architect Martin Liefhebber, principal of Breathe Architects, who explained that, “Traditional design relies on ‘energy solutions’ through mechanical electrical systems which pollute as they deliver comfort. Resource-positive design suggests that comfort can be delivered by means of material resources instead of machines. Here, the building fabric is the facilitator of comfort without fouling our primary material–the atmosphere.”

This concept is similar to the Living Building Challenge created by the Cascadia Region Green Building Council (–although the Living Building Challenge does include mechanical electrical systems in its design process. Emmanuel Lavoie, an engineer and president of Reevolution in Kelowna, has been active in the Living Building movement, and as he describes it, “The buildings are meant to generate no waste, emit no carbon emissions, and interact with the environment similarly to a flower. Examples of these prerequisites include a requirement to achieve net-zero energy and water independence for the project, treat all sewage onsite, and provide a one-time project construction carbon offset.”

No matter what this movement is called, it raises significant questions that the profession must address: What if our buildings generated more energy than they consumed? What if they purified more water than they used? What if they generated more fresh air than the greenhouse gases they emitted? What if they incorporated more waste materials in their construction than they created? What if every new development grew more food than it needed?

These questions are not just environmental or architectural in nature. They suggest both a reassessment of our basic economic strategies and our approach to urbanization and development. In 1994, John Elkington used the phrase “Triple Bottom Line” to describe a full cost-accounting approach to human activities. This has variously been described as Economy, Environment and Equity, or People, Planet and Profits, but the idea is that successful developments must add value to all three dimensions and this defines a “sweet spot” where they all overlap. In architecture, this sweet spot has proven elusive–not only do buildings have a poor environmental record, but we have also reached a point where home ownership is beyond the reach of far too many Canadians.

Resource-positive design could change that. I currently pay more than $500 a month in utilities including heating, water, electricity and telecommunications. With a resource-positive house, that equation could be reduced or even reversed. Homeowners would be compensated for the excess energy they generated, the carbon they sequestered or the water they purified. In a wireless world, they could even generate revenue by bouncing cell phone and Internet signals from one house to the next. While this in itself won’t make housing affordable, it would have a significant and positive impact on the monthly costs of home ownership, and hence, on social equity.

Is resource-positive design possible or even feasible? According to Kevin Hydes, the former Chair of the World Green Building Council and CEO of Integral, “Resource-positive buildings are not only possible but are happening already. In the United States, the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competition requires a net-zero approach and net-zero-emission buildings are being designed and built globally as we speak.” This year, two Canadian teams will be taking part in the international Solar Decathlon competition where university students compete to build solar-powered houses on the Mall in Washington, DC ( www.albertasolardecathlon.caand adds that, “We have the knowledge, the skills and some of the learning already in place. In Europe, for example, the PassivHaus has set the benchmark for low-energy residential homes, and global technology transfer is happening now.” (

As Liefhebber has advocated, the PassivHaus is designed to achieve a reasonable level of comfort without active heating or cooling systems. What it demonstrates is that even without advanced technologies, a great deal can be accomplished with a common-sense approach to design. Alan Maguire, principal of Alan Maguire Architect, points out that, “First we need to exploit the possibilities of ‘passive design’–the careful siting of a facility, the utilization of its thermal mass, and the use of daylight and natural ventilation are the simplest and most effective means to move a building towards net-zero emissions. Passive design is a gift which we have yet to fully appreciate or take advantage of.” Hydes confirms this point of view when he says, “As with all renewable energy ideas, the key is to reduce the basic load by smart design, then buy the power-generating technology.”

Nonetheless, a great deal still has to occur before resource-positive design becomes commonplace. Liefhebber asserts that, “Each Canadian needs to reduce his or her share of carbon production by 95%.” Reduced consumption is essential for the success of this idea, but as Dr. Andr Potvin of Laval University points out, some 25% of a building’s performance depends on the behaviour of its occupants. In other words, we need to use design to encourage us to change our behaviours. This can be as simple as operable windows or easily understood meters that tell us how much energy we are consuming.

According to Hydes, “The main issue for Canada is cost. Our building materials for low-energy buildings are still too expensive due to lack of adoption. Three-element glazing, for instance, is a minimum standard in northern Europe but not in Canada.” Maguire adds, “We also need our clients to show and express an interest and desire for these new approaches.”

To help those clients take advantage of the potential of resource-positive design, we may need new economic structures as well. In a working paper entitled “Homes With Tails: What If You Could Own Your Internet Connection,” (,authors Derek Slater and Tim Wu relate how rural communities often set up their own power and telephone utilities when other forms of service were not feasible. We may need to return to this model to tap into locally generated energy sources, and we may also need expanded funding programs to help homeowners, building owners and communities upgrade and retrofit their buildings to become resource-positive.

Most of all, if we are to achieve resource-positive design, Canada needs a comprehensive research program in green buildings. According to the Canada Green Building Council, while the Canadian construction industry accounts for some 12% of our Gross Domestic Product, less than 0.7% of the total cost of bu
ilding permits issued in 2006 was reinvested in research. The sad fact of the matter is that we really don’t know what works and what doesn’t.

Recently, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Ann Dale, Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Community Development at Royal Roads University on a research proposal called Resource+, which hopes to address this issue. As Dale explains it, “Resource+ is an inter-and trans-disciplinary, trans-institutional research collaboratory, which will capture critical data on the carbon and energy footprints of buildings and communities to inform the development of carbon-management strategies for decision-makers in government and business.” This $15-million proposal includes close to 100 researchers at 16 universities from across Canada and a variety of private-sector companies ranging from international giants such as IBM to startups such as Energy Aware Technology, which provides tools for real-time feedback on energy consumption.

The strength of Dale’s approach is in its crosssectoral nature. Given the multifaceted nature of the problem, resource-positive design cannot be achieved by a single profession or discipline. It is not too farfetched to say that resource-positive design provides the AEC industry with a chance to make a profound difference to the future of the planet if we can develop the means to work together effectively. There is no doubt that such an approach demands a radically different approach to design, but there is also no doubt that Canadian architects, engineers, developers, contractors, owners, operators, financiers and researchers could play a leadership role in this movement.

Note: Over the last few months, a number of architects and engineers have generously agreed to share their presentations on sustainable design. To view these presentations, please and click on the link called “Canada-British Columbia Green Building Mission.”