The Heat is On
July was the Earth’s warmest month on record, according to NASA. While this figure was pushed upwards by the presence of El Niño, the fact remains that the planet is heating up, sea levels are rising and extreme weather events are becoming more frequent. We may soon reach a tipping point where some of these effects become irreversible. Nations around the world have dithered for decades about making the necessary changes that would slow, stop or even reverse this process.
This makes the Canadian government’s consultative effort to take action on climate change a “now-or-never” proposition. In this context, all members of the AEC industry must work together to ensure that energy-efficient buildings are part of the discussion. Better buildings are the easiest, fastest, most efficient and least expensive means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions—bar none. As Stephen Selkowitz of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory said in 2008, “Building energy efficiency is not low-hanging fruit, it is fruit that is lying on the ground rotting!”
Our current federal government crafted its climate change initiative at a meeting of the Prime Minister and first ministers this March. Among other things, their Vancouver Declaration established four working groups on clean technology, innovation and jobs, carbon pricing mechanisms, adaptation and climate resilience, and specific mitigation opportunities. According to the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, “The working group on specific mitigation opportunities has looked at approaches to reducing emissions in key sectors, including the built environment.” These groups will report back to the federal and provincial governments this fall, and the implementation of their recommendations will begin shortly thereafter.
Given the significant role that buildings play in climate change and the urgency of the situation, eleven organizations (including the RAIC) recently signed an open letter to the Ministers of Natural Resources and the Environment and Climate Change, proposing “A Bold National Action Plan for Energy-Efficient Buildings.” This five-point plan recommends that the federal government:
- Set an ambitious goal of improving Canada’s buildings sector;
- Create impetus to act with accessible information on energy use and reporting;
- Protect consumers and provide industry with certainty through the progressive application of codes and standards;
- Incentivize private investment in energy efficiency and carbon reduction through strategic use of public funds;
- Lead by example and use public sector investments in public buildings to accelerate demand and innovation.
In moving forward, however, there are serious questions that the profession needs to address. First, we need to agree on the impact that buildings have on the climate. In Canada’s Second Biennial Report on Climate Change by Environment Canada, buildings are shown as contributing only 12 percent to our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in 2013. The Ministry of Natural Resources has clarified that the GHG emissions from the use of electricity in buildings “represents an additional five percent, for a combined total GHG emissions from buildings and houses of 17 percent in 2013.”
And yet, a report from the Council of Canadian Academies, entitled Technology and Policy Options for a Low-Emission Energy System in Canada, which apparently uses the same data tables, arrived at the conclusion that “emissions from residential, commercial, and institutional buildings (referred to collectively as the buildings sector) accounted for roughly 29 percent of energy use in Canada and almost a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions as of 2012 (including the indirect emissions from electricity generation).”
Thomas Mueller, Hon. FRAIC, President and CEO of the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC), notes that his organization has used a consistent standard for developed countries to calculate that “the heating and cooling of buildings accounts for 30 to 35 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions.” Moreover, he says, the emissions associated with manufacturing and transporting building materials could add another 10 to 15 percent. In an urban context, Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan suggests that buildings of all types account for a whopping 56 percent of that city’s GHG emissions.
These discrepancies are huge. The difference between 17 percent and 35 percent is enormous. Canada emitted a total of 732 megatonnes (MT) of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2014. Using a figure of 17 percent, our buildings emitted 124 MT of carbon dioxide equivalent—but this amount more than doubles to 256 MT if the figure is actually twice as high.
This is why the second recommendation of the National Action Plan—to “create impetus to act with accessible information on energy use and reporting”—is so important. As Jonathan Wilkinson, Member of Parliament for North Vancouver and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Environment and Climate Change, noted, “If you don’t measure something, or if you don’t measure it effectively, then it is never going to improve.”
Apparently, we are not measuring very effictively—nor are we designing effectively, for that matter. A 2014 study, entitled Do our Green Buildings Perform as Intended?, studied nine green buildings from across Canada. In three of those buildings, the actual performance (in terms of kW h /m2/yr) was significantly worse (by a quarter or more) than the predicted performance.
According to architect Jennifer Cutbill, MRAIC and RAIC Regional Director for British Columbia and the Yukon, who worked on the National Action Plan, “The RAIC stressed that one of the keys to the plan had to be the measurement and tracking of buildings, because we have no idea of how they are performing.”
To address the gap between performance and design, we need energy benchmarking—a process that tracks buildings’ energy performance in order to gauge changes in performance over time. Cutbill adds, “We need to do similar monitoring on the design side and create a continuous improvement cycle, in terms of the performance of predictive models.”One of the problems with benchmarking is that it only works if everyone is comparing the same things in the same way. If the performance of different buildings is measured in different ways, then the data is useless—like comparing apples and oranges. The CaGBC report Green Building in Canada: Assessing the Market Impacts and Opportunities recommends that the Energy Star Portfolio Manager be used as our national framework, since it is already employed throughout the United States and is being adapted for Canadian use by Natural Resources Canada.
The lack of an effective benchmarking framework has not stopped various groups from setting ambitious targets for the reduction of GHG emissions—but again, these are all over the map. The National Action Plan calls for 25 percent to 50 percent energy reductions for 30 percent of the building stock by 2030, and for all new construction to be nearly net zero energy by then. The CaGBC is recommending a 30 percent reduction in GHG emissions from buildings by 2030. Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan wants to reduce energy use and GHG emissions in existing buildings by 20 percent over 2007 levels by 2020, and mandate that all buildings constructed in Vancouver from that year onwards be carbon neutral in operations.
Perhaps most ambitious of all is a commitment made by Public Services and Procurement Canada as part of the Environment Partnership Action Plan, crafted during the North American Leaders’ Summit held in June of this year, to “increase the percentage of electricity they purchase from clean energy sources [to operate the buildings they own] to 100 percent by 2025.” Given that the federal government possesses some 27 million square metres of buildings, this is a substantial undertaking. By my rough calculations, it is akin to meeting all of the electrical requirements of a city the size of St. John’s, Newfoundland, with renewable sources.
Rather than simply purchase “clean” electricity, wouldn’t it make more sense to make the buildings they own and operate more efficient? As Mueller puts it, “If we really want to save the planet, we need to retrofit existing buildings en masse.”
This would involve deep retrofits, which are more than superficial renovations. A deep retrofit looks at a whole building and how its systems can work together to reduce energy consumption by 30 percent or more. This may involve improved insulation, passive solar, active solar equipment, and air movement and moisture control. Moreover, it integrates these components and monitors the outcomes, in order to verify and fine-tune performance. The federal government has a 27-million-square-metre deep retrofit opportunity—and we can’t let them waste it.
Beyond reducing emissions, improving the energy performance of buildings also presents a major economic opportunity. With manufacturing jobs heading offshore and oil prices at rock bottom, the construction industry is now one of the most active sectors of the Canadian economy. Tom-Pierre Frappé-Sénéclauze, a Senior Advisor at the Pembina Institute and one of the authors of the National Action Plan, points out, “Shifting our money from wasted energy to energy efficiency creates more jobs and puts more money in people’s pockets.” He maintains that every million dollars invested in energy efficiency creates 15 to 17 jobs.
The National Action Plan relies heavily on a study called Energy Efficiency: Engine of Economic Growth in Canada, commissioned by Natural Resources Canada from the Acadia Center in 2014. This study looks at the “total net macroeconomic impacts” of energy efficiency—not just in buildings but in all sectors—and finds that it is “the persistent effects of the savings realized by consumers and industry that drive 75 to 85 percent of the overall macroeconomic impact.” Analyzing three different investment scenarios (business as usual, mid-investment and high investment), the study estimates that every dollar of program spending would generate $5 to $8 of GDP. An aggressive investment scenario would result in $19 billion to $48 billion of annual net increase in GDP and 121,000 to 304,000 net jobs annually. By comparison, Canada gained 158,000 jobs in 2015.
These gains are predicated on a very substantial government investment. To realize the maximum gains of the high investment scenario would cost on average $8.5 billion per year for 15 years, or $127.5 billion in total. By comparison, the output value of the Canadian construction industry in 2015 alone was $370 billion.
On the other hand, Canada continues to make dubious investments in fossil fuels. For example, in 2012, oil and gas companies walked away from a carbon capture and storage project because it wasn’t profitable enough—despite the fact that the federal government was prepared to invest $342.8 million and the government of Alberta was to contribute $436 million more. Similarly, while G20 governments have pledged to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, the Pembina Institute estimates that in Canada such subsidies still amount to more than $700 million annually. Yes, $8.5 billion is a lot of money, but most of that investment would help local economies and regional building trades.
Significantly, the economic advantages of deep retrofits do not depend on any major technological breakthroughs or innovations. This is a design problem, not a technological one. Nor are we lacking ideas. In the course of writing this piece, Peter Busby, FRAIC, board member at Perkins+Will and the managing director of its San Francisco office—and arguably Canada’s greenest architect—found time to phone me from an airport lounge at eight o’clock in the evening before he boarded a flight. In the course of a few minutes, he burst forth with more than a dozen ideas about what we need to do: update the national building code; raise the price of energy so that photovoltaics make economic sense; make feed-in tariffs nationwide; retrofit all existing buildings; use wood and low-carbon concrete; build district energy systems; encourage the proliferation of electric automobiles; and “get off this craze of glazed slab edges that are just radiators of energy.”
And yet, Busby has offered to share his experience and expertise with successive federal governments (including the current one) and they haven’t taken him up on it. Similarly, Frappé-Sénéclauze says that the Pembina Institute has yet to receive an official response to their National Action Plan. The Minister of Natural Resources Canada, Jim Carr, was too busy to speak with me directly, but his staff allowed that I could attribute the following quote to him: “Clean energy innovation and energy efficiency will play an important role as we bolster our resilience to climate change and transition towards a low-carbon economy. Reducing emissions from buildings and homes can play a big part in these efforts. All of this contributes to the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change that we are developing with the collaboration of governments, Indigenous groups and industry leaders.” Sadly, in my experience, these are the kind of platitudes that politicians offer when they intend to do nothing at all.
It raises the question: If creating better buildings is such an obvious economic and environmental solution, then why aren’t they the centre-piece of our government’s climate action plan? As David Helliwell of Pulse Energy once said, “the biggest problem with energy efficiency is nobody cares.” Mueller echoes this sentiment when he notes, “retro-fitting buildings is unsexy, hard, grunt work.”
While it would be convenient to blame our governments for their indifference to energy-efficient buildings, in reality we are the architects of our own misfortune. Danny Harvey, a professor of geography at the University of Toronto, wrote in a paper called Reducing Energy Use in the Building Sector that, “The main obstacles to achieving these high energy savings in new buildings is the lack of knowledge and motivation within the design profession.” Or as Busby says, “The number one thing we need to do is educate people.”
These are obstacles we can—and must—overcome. All of our national organizations, all of our provincial regulators, all of our schools of architecture and every single Canadian architect needs to work together and lobby all levels of government to ensure that they understand, and act on, the importance of energy efficient buildings—unsexy though they may be. We need to vigorously support initiatives like the National Action Plan; we need to plague government officials and the media until they understand the importance of this issue; and we need to insist that energy efficient buildings be a critical part of Canada’s climate action plan.
If you believe that architecture can make a difference, now is the time to prove it.
Douglas MacLeod, MRAIC, is Chair of the RAIC Centre for Architecture at University.
With the exception of the CaGBC’s Market Impact study, all of the reports in this article are freely available online.