Image: Riley Snelling

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“Construction is not a sexy area of climate policy, but it is one in which huge gains can be made for relatively little costs” — New Scientist Magazine

As you read this you are likely sitting in a problem. Industry Canada says “Canadians spend about 90 per cent of their time in buildings, at home, at work or at play.” The bad news is these buildings are killing the planet.

According to the United Nations buildings accounts for 30 per cent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and 40 per cent of all energy use. In Canada these numbers are worse, where buildings account for 45 per cent of GHG emissions. The UN hits the nail on the head with this warning “Countries will not meet emission reduction targets without supporting energy efficiency gains in the building sector.”

Furthermore, climate change is going to be hard on our buildings with more extreme weather affecting the stability and livability of our buildings. Given all this, as people who work in sustainable building, we were thankful that the Leap Manifesto includes the demand: “We want a universal program to build and retrofit energy efficient housing, ensuring that the lowest-income communities will benefit first.”

This demand is a good jumping-off point, especially with the emphasis on low-income communities. However, the earth doesn’t care where the GHG emissions are coming from and they are coming from a lot more than houses. They are coming from all buildings, including the 500,000 commercial and institutional buildings in Canada, and they are even coming from, we are afraid, many highly energy efficient “green” buildings (more on this later).

If we don’t change how we are doing all of our construction work then we will be in a lot more trouble and have virtually no chance of living sustainably. The good news is that some people, organizations, communities, and governments have taken that Leap, and we encourage Canadians everywhere to do so themselves.


Concrete change to cement a better future

How come buildings are such an energy hog and GHG emitter? Most buildings in Canada were not designed or built to be very energy efficient. While there has been excellent leadership by some, buildings in Canada use an enormous amount of energy to operate (think heating, cooling, hot water, appliances). Due to cheap energy, short-term financial outlooks and no carbon accounting (among other things) we have ended up with a stock of buildings that are very wasteful.

So, when the Leap calls for retrofitting homes, this is the right call — we must fix what we have. We only get one chance to retrofit however, so we need to be sure we are meeting the standard we need to in order to mitigate climate change. 

In addition to operational energy, buildings require energy to be built and materials that often require lot of energy to be made and transported. All this energy use involves a lot of carbon and GHGs. There is a danger in pursuing energy efficiency and conservation in the operations of buildings as a solitary goal in buildings. As Chris Magwood puts it in The Carbon Elephant in the Room “Pursuing energy efficiency using high carbon materials is bad, bad policy.”

The materials used to build most buildings, including many highly energy-efficient buildings, often require a lot of energy to create and transport. One example is cement, which is responsible for some five per cent of all human-produced Co2 emissions. According to Architecture 2030 “Presently the embodied energy of building materials contributes anywhere from 15 to 20 per cent of the energy used by a building over a 50-year period.”

There are many environmentally healthy construction materials to work with (including work on greener cement) but in Canada there is little incentive for green builders to seek out or select cement or other materials that have less embodied carbon/energy.


Get passive about climate change

In terms of reducing the operational energy and carbon footprint of buildings, one high standard that is gaining traction is the Passive House (PH) standard. A Passive House building is super air-tight and super insulated and uses 60-90 per cent less energy than conventional buildings. The PH standard is based on building performance metrics and are also designed with durability and comfort as top priorities.

PH greatly reduces the operating cost of a building — a fact recognized by Habitat for Humanity who in Washington, D.C. are building PH buildings to control costs for low-income people. It is a lot easier to get people into housing for the long term when you don’t have high monthly energy bills. PH has been built in Bella Bella, in the Heiltsuk First Nations in British Columbia. In Ottawa a 42-unit affordable housing building for people who experience mental health difficulties is being built to PH standards. Saving from the operations cost will be put back into programming. The PH list goes on.

However smart these PH projects may be in terms of serving the community and in terms of energy operations, PH is at this time completely voluntary in Canada. And when it comes to construction history has shown us that there are great limits to what developers will volunteer to do. As a step towards better building why not make building operational high standards like Passive House mandatory? Recently Ireland’s Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County did just that and some 20,000 PH buildings may be built in the next 10 years thanks to a change in the code.

Building codes are our legal minimum requirement to manage risk to the safety and health of the occupants and the environment and we should push them as far as we need to get the job done. Regarding the operational energy efficiency of buildings, the Ontario Building Code, for example, is improving and more improvements are planned.

The Code, to its credit, already says in part A section 2.2 “An objective of this Code is to limit the probability that, as a result of the design or construction of a building, the natural environment will be exposed to an unacceptable risk of degradation due to emissions of greenhouse gases into the air.” What it doesn’t do is quantify that acceptable risk.

One approach is to account for the lifecycle of buildings, possibly prescribing the maximum amount of carbon that a building can use, contain and emit from construction to the end of its use. One example in this direction is the Living Building Challenge (LBC). The LBC has seven performance categories: Place, Water, Energy, Health & Happiness, Materials, Equity and Beauty. Are LBC buildings actually getting built? Yes, they are, and we could build them too.

Building with the environment, is of course, not a new idea. Some builders use a natural building model, using low and carbon neutral, even sequestration, materials such as earth, clay, straw, stone and wood. We need some old ideas with some new modelling and we need to do it fast.

Global warming is obviously a crisis and we need very strong, measurable construction goals to take it on. The math isn’t hard, the numbers and formulas are available, as are the materials and building techniques. The result? Houses and buildings that are affordable to run (and therefore more affordable in general), more comfortable, durable, and of course, much more sustainable by Leaps and bounds.

Melinda Zytaruk and Matthew Adams are two of the co-founders of the Fourth Pig Green & Natural Building worker co-op that works to build and promote sustainable buildings. 

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Image: Riley Snelling

Matthew Adams

Matt moved to Toronto from the U.S just in time for Mike Harris to take power in Ontario and has been stunned ever since. Matthew Adams is a co-founder of the Catalyst Centre (a social justice popular...