A Wake-Up Call For The Building Sector - GTEC Green Technology Education Centre

Listen to the Interviewer/Author read this article (11:24)

Time is running out in Canada and beyond for the building industry to reduce carbon emissions on target. That’s the view of Ottawa architect Mark Thompson Brandt, whose company Trace Architectures specializes in historic preservation and green buildings.

Ottawa architect, Mark Thompson Brandt

Ottawa architect, Mark Thompson Brandt

There is good reason for Thompson Brandt’s concern. Today, buildings are responsible for almost 40% of global energy-related carbon emissions, generated by “operational” carbon from heating, cooling and electrification of buildings. Operational carbon accounts for about 27% of emissions. The remaining emissions come from “embodied” or “upfront” carbon derived from the manufacture and transport of building materials along with construction and demolition.

Thompson Brandt is an internationally recognized speaker and advocate for saving and reusing older buildings and is co-author of Canada’s national guidelines on sustainable rehabilitation of existing and historic buildings.

In a wide-ranging interview for GTEC, he talks about the opportunities for change in the building sector, the response in British Columbia and the role of all Canadians.

(GTEC) – Globally the building sector is responsible for about 40% of carbon emissions. What is the number in Canada?

(Thompson Brandt) – If you were just to do a measurement in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, you’d find that north of 65%, probably over 70%. It’s about the density of the place. It really depends so much on how urban the place is and what is the electrical grid. Is it clean or dirty? By that we mean, if you’re getting all of your power through hydroelectricity. We call that clean power. If you’re getting it all through gas-fired boilers or coal, that’s dirty power. So, that increases the percentage to operational building emissions.

(GTEC) – How are we doing in Canada in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the building sector?

(Thompson Brandt) – I’ve been crisscrossing the country and the continent for over a decade now, trying to educate and in some ways promote the industry to start changing its ways. Only recently has there been a real uptake to get serious about it. Up until about two years ago, it was very peripheral. There were only small efforts and now we’re at a real tipping point for us to have any real impact on our greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. What we need now is a much bigger, more comprehensive program. So with the latest budget, the federal government has started to introduce some big money initiatives that are needed. Billions of dollars are slated for different programs for deep green rehabilitation on existing buildings and in fact, reducing carbon in new buildings as well.

(GTEC) – Why are we at this tipping point?

(Thompson Brandt) – The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change)has said if we don’t have very significant change by 2030 we will start losing ground. We are already on a ticking clock and the industry is very slow moving traditionally.  It’s like turning a massive ship around. I say tipping point because seven years is not a lot of time to turn the ship around and we need institutional change. We need an attitude change whereby our existing resources – empty buildings, overbuilt buildings with empty space, old buildings that people are leaving just because they’re old.  All of these need to be more valued resources so that we can build less new. We also need to find better materials that are less harmful from a greenhouse gas perspective.

(GTEC) – To what extent is the building sector falling short of being carbon neutral by 2030 in Canada?

(Thompson Brandt) – We are falling well short. It’s safe to say there is no way we will be carbon neutral by 2030. Most people think you need to have a very large amount of reduction in emissions by then so we can reach carbon zero by 2050. And we’re not even at that level yet.

(GTEC) – What is the best opportunity to reduce carbon emissions in the building sector?

(Thompson Brandt) – For my money and I’ve studied this quite a bit, there’s just nothing that can match the positive change we can make by refocusing on existing buildings. If we can get every existing building a deep green rehabilitation and retrofit that would be the single biggest thing we could do.

We have made great strides in Canada and around the world in operational carbon. We’ve developed technologies, we’ve even changed people’s attitudes about operational carbon and we are getting it down through electrifying buildings, through more high efficiency furnaces and air chillers. But we are not doing so well on the embodied carbon and in fact, it’s becoming a bigger and bigger percentage as we get that operational carbon down. That will be changed through technology and development of new materials.

In my view and that of the IPCC, the biggest single opportunity is in the reuse of existing buildings, less demolition, less new construction, more efficient use of existing buildings.

(GTEC) – Canada saw a building boom after the war between 1945 and 1975.  Are we as a country ready to retrofit these buildings and homes?

(Thompson Brandt) – These structures are in the neighbourhood of 50 years old plus or minus and that means as with most buildings where that is on the life cycle… a monumental moment. When we were building those structures during that period, the attitude was let’s just get rid of them. That harmonizes with the post war world view that everything that is old is bad and everything that is new is good. We have to get out of that conundrum and look at all these buildings from this period and say let’s get on with rehabilitating them and using them more efficiently so we can bring down carbon emissions in the building sector. This is why the new government program is important.

(GTEC) – What’s the importance of building codes in reducing greenhouse gas emissions?

(Thompson Brandt) – British Columbia is in the forefront of provinces in that regard. Vancouver and a couple of other municipalities are in the vanguard on that. Building codes came into existence originally to prevent problems that threatened public safety whether it be fire or just keeping the building solid and sound. Well, if building codes are meant to make people safe, then right now in a climate emergency keeping people safe includes not poisoning them with carbon emissions. We should demand that building codes include greenhouse gas emission-related topics and issues. We really have to look at changing codes as part of the necessary solution, and architects by and large are very supportive of this, client building owners not so much.  There will be a cost for sure but when you compare that with the cost of climate change it’s an insignificant drop in the ocean.

(GTEC) – What are the financial implications for developers and homeowners of retrofits?

 (Thompson Brandt) – Savings are achieved in the long run. What the question really is how quickly can we get the payback?  So, if you can get the payback in six years, there are very few owners who would not want to do that.  If it’s going to be 16 years, owners who have a long term commitment to the building, they’re fine with it. But other owners if the building is more of an investment and they would more likely be selling it before then, they’re more reluctant to put the capital costs in.

So if we look to building codes that will help, if we look to government programs and incentives that will help. If we simply help change the building industry’s attitude, that will help as well.

(GTEC) – What green design projects in Vancouver are worthy of public recognition?

Office building - Perkins & Will

Office building – Perkins & Will

(Thompson Brandt) – I would like to pick an existing building. It’s a real exemplar – an architectural firm (Perkins & Will) in downtown Vancouver. They bought an old warehouse-type building for their offices and they did a complete deep green retrofit.  They operate it pretty close to zero emissions. It’s a great example of the way we used to think as architects prior to the time when we had mechanical engineering look after the heating and cooling, lighting and energy for our buildings.

In those days we allowed for more natural light to enter the buildings, having natural ventilation cool off the building. This company has done a fine job. Their operational costs are almost zero.

Lobby area - Perkins & Will 1

Lobby area – Perkins & Will

(GTEC) – Your company has specialized in historic preservation and green buildings since the late 1980’s, what have you learned?

(Thompson Brandt) – We naturally gravitated to an area that earlier had been looked down upon by architects.  Renovations were always projects you did when you didn’t have any new buildings. They weren’t sexy. The plain truth of the matter is in real life where we take older existing buildings and make something more out of them, they have become the most popular buildings in places in our culture like the Distillery District in Toronto. That contrast between old and new is really exciting people.  We could have a lot more of that and be quite successful.

Restored trusses, Salt Bldg., Vancouver

Restored trusses, Salt Bldg., Vancouver

(GTEC) – What are your final thoughts on this subject?

(Thompson Brandt) – To achieve our climate targets, it needs to be more widely known because the building industry does respond to people. If people demand greener buildings, this will help. People do have the power to make changes by pressuring the building industry, pressuring the government for building code changes and incentive programs. Every one of us has a role to play in how we make our purchases and how we advocate for the planet and the next generation.

(Interview has been edited for brevity only.)

Bill Stovin is a retired journalist with a long career at CBC-TV and radio and in private radio as well as a former Communications Director in government.