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The roof of the International Broadcast Centre during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics as seen during the Games. (Roger Hallett)
The roof of the International Broadcast Centre during the Vancouver 2010 Olympics as seen during the Games. (Roger Hallett)

Vertical City

Vancouver building code an example for Toronto Add to ...

Want to see a city with the power to tell developers to go green or go home? Go west.

Vancouver's charter allows it to develop city-specific building bylaws. Since 2006, the city has put mandatory environmentally friendly requirements in place, and it hopes to tighten its energy-efficient rules over the next several months and years.

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That's led to a more than 20-per-cent reduction in the carbon footprint of Vancouver buildings. In Toronto, on the other hand, nearly two-thirds of energy consumption come from its temperature-controlled, electricity-guzzling buildings - something the current council has pledged to greatly reduce.

But climate and energy experts point to loose regulations and inconsistent incentives that mean the city, a would-be climate-change leader, isn't as innovative as it could be.

Two of Toronto's mayoral candidates vow they'd push for the province to give them more powers. But a spokesman for Housing Minister Jim Bradley says there's a reason the entire province uses the same building code, and the Ontario government has no intention of handing over more power to let Toronto put stricter green building guidelines in place.

"The ministry would welcome suggestions from Toronto or any other municipality.… It's important to note, though, that energy efficiency - as well as accessibility, structural sufficiency, fire protection, et cetera - are qualities that all buildings across Ontario should possess. These are not issues specific to a single municipality or region of Ontario," spokesman Joe Kim said. He noted that the province started including a provincial component in its building code last year that will place more stringent environmental requirements on buildings after 2011.

Proponents of provincewide building codes note that it makes more sense for developers to know what they're getting into from one city to another. In addition, architect Dermot Sweeny pointed out, more environmentally zealous cities can pay for their enthusiasm with higher opportunity costs, and find economically minded businesses going elsewhere.

"The greenest building code in North America" is how sustainability development program manager David Ramslie refers to Vancouver's green homes program, which requires all one- and two-family homes to be equipped for solar power and electric cars; to include energy-saving windows, an insulated foundation and dual-flush toilets.

All new commercial developments, meanwhile, need to adhere to a U.S.-based energy-consumption standard called ASHRAE 90.1. But by 2013, Mr. Ramslie said, the city hopes to put in place a "performance-based" system with hard caps on how much energy a building can consume per square metre. Vancouver's buildings are nearly 25 per cent more energy-efficient than Canada's minimum national requirements, but the city still lags far behind such jurisdictions as Frankfurt, Germany, which has had per-metre energy consumption caps in place for years.

But without the freedom to write its own building code, he said, "We wouldn't have been able to do any of the things we've done with one- or two-family dwellings, we wouldn't have been able to be more aggressive with our energy codes. We definitely wouldn't be looking at new energy performance targets for buildings," he said.

"Where possible we try to align with the province. But where there are things like protecting the environment that are important to us, we have made changes and we have different regulations."

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