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Condominiums. (Jeff Vinnick/Jeff Vinnick/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Condominiums. (Jeff Vinnick/Jeff Vinnick/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Real Estate

Canada's buildings playing catch-up in eco-friendliness Add to ...

Buildings don't come any greener than a new research centre being built at the University of British Columbia, which relies on the wind, the sun and the ground to provide it with all of its energy needs.

When it opens in 2011, the $37-million Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability will actually reduce the amount of energy used by the university as a whole, as it produces more power than it will consume. It is billed as the most environmentally friendly building under construction in North America, though UBC Vancouver Sustainability executive director John Robinson concedes that new projects will likely to vie for the title before its doors open.

"Everything in the building, from the paint to the heating system, is part of a research program to see how we can make it more sustainable," he said. "Think of it as a building that lives within its own means and restores the environment around it."

While the building's green supremacy will surely be challenged, any rivals aren't likely to be Canadian. A study to be released today by the Real Property Association of Canada (REALpac) and Jantzi-Sustainalytics Inc. shows that Canada lags behind most of the Western world when it comes to building and maintaining office towers that are environmentally friendly.

The study used a ranking system that examined dozens of factors, such as whether the commercial real estate companies examined had environmental plans and how waste was handled. The average score for a Canadian company was 41.7 out of 100, behind the United States (45.9), Europe (50.2) and Australia (53.5).

"It was interesting to note that performance lagged most along the environment dimension, which we consider to be the most material to risk and returns," the study says. "The low average performance indicates there is much room for future improvement."

REALpac, which is an industry association for owners and managers of commercial real estate in Canada, commissioned the study when it realized that Canadian commercial real estate companies weren't keeping pace with international peers. While the results show Canadians are behind, chief executive officer Michael Brooks said they are ramping up quickly to make up for lost time against a more environmentally aware Europe.

Only five of the 18 Canadian companies surveyed agreed to answer more detailed questionnaires - Allied Properties, Bentall, Brookfield Properties, Morguard, Oxford Properties and Ivanhoe Cambridge. They all scored higher than average, but they aren't the only success stories in Canada. Royal Bank of Canada recently opened its new RBC Centre in downtown Toronto with features such as computer-controlled lighting and a cooling system that draws on water from Lake Ontario.

The RBC Centre is one of several new buildings opened or set to open in downtown Toronto this year, which analysts expect will give landlords an opportunity to retrofit older structures with modern upgrades as tenants relocate to the new facilities. As much as $500-million could be spent in the next three years on making improvements to the city's oldest buildings in a bid to attract replacement tenants.

"Tenants have really started demanding these green features in the last year and a half," said Adrien Deveau, manager of green planning and design service for Toronto-based engineering firm Halsal Associates Ltd.

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