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Ryan Zizzo, founder of Mantle Developments, at The YMCA of Greater Toronto, leaders in climate resilience.Christopher Katsarov

Climate change and extreme weather are pushing cities to prioritize climate resilience and reconsider the way buildings and other infrastructure are designed. Canada experienced its most destructive wildfire season in recorded history in 2023, and more than 250,000 Canadians experienced disruptive fires and flooding.

Policymakers, architects and the construction industry are looking to adaptation as a way to manage the near-term effects of climate change.

“Every year we’re seeing larger climate impacts on our societies and our built environment,” says Ryan Zizzo, founder of Mantle Developments, a Toronto-based net-zero carbon design and climate resilient development consultancy. “We need to make sure that what we’re building is more resilient and think about how we can update and make our systems that are already in place more robust to minimize future impacts.”

Mantle worked with The YMCA of Greater Toronto to become a leader in the climate resilience and adaptation sphere, designing facilities that can function as community reception centres during climate emergencies. In February, 2024, two of its locations – one in Vaughan and one in Toronto – achieved the highest possible LEED certification for their low-carbon and climate-resilient designs.

Opened in mid-2022, both are designed with highly efficient mechanical and electrical systems and can function independently of an electrical-grid failure due to extreme weather such as heat waves, ice storms and flooding.

The facilities also utilize green roofs, a climate resilience strategy that helps reduce the risk of community flooding by absorbing rainwater during storms and reducing the load on municipal sewers, Zizzo explains. “Toronto is a leader on this, having required green roofs on certain types of buildings since 2009, when it became the first city in North America to adopt a green-roof bylaw.”

Sponge cities

According to the Intact Centre of Climate Adaptation (ICCA) at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, the costliest impact of climate change in Canada is flooding. On the residential side, the ICCA estimates costs related to intense rainfall, and river and coastal flooding, at $2.9-billion a year.

“Ten per cent of the residential housing market in Canada is no longer insurable for flood risk,” says Blair Feltmate, head of the ICCA. “Given the increasing frequency of flooding across the country, and sometimes multiple floods in towns and cities within a five-year period, that’s created a reason for people to embrace adaptation to flood risk.”

To become more resilient to flooding, Canadian cities are becoming more “spongey.” In April, the City of Montreal announced plans to build a 4,300-square-metre “sponge park.”

The green space will feature drainage pits and vegetation capable of temporarily retaining almost 1,067,000 litres of rainwater – more than 40 per cent of the capacity of an Olympic swimming pool – and allowing it to slowly seep back into the soil, preventing flooding. The project, located in the borough of Verdun, is one of 30 planned sponge parks.

Feltmate says part of the reason there’s a spike in action surrounding climate resilience is that the impact is localized versus something like decarbonization which has a more global effect. “With adaptation, if you spend money to build a dry pond in a community to give water somewhere to go when the big storms hit, the benefits of that action are felt right in that community,”

Climate-proofing the future

Alongside municipalities, the construction industry is also innovating in the climate resilience sphere. In some regions, it’s becoming mandatory.

Mark Henderson, manager of sustainable retrofits and decarbonization at PCL Construction, says major cities like Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto are requiring climate risk assessments for building applications. “You’re not going to be able to build a building without a climate risk assessment,” he says. “That’s step one.”

Henderson notes that each region has unique climate change-related concerns and construction companies like PCL are adapting their materials and design to meet these demands. The PCL-constructed Windermere Fire Station in Edmonton went through a climate risk assessment during the design process and was built with climate resilience in mind.

“It includes solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling and onsite bioswales for rainwater management,” Henderson says. The fire station is also a net-zero building, producing all the energy required to run the building. “It’s a good example of a climate-resilient building that should be able to stand the test of time.”

Canada is currently in the process of updating three national building codes – the National Building Code, Canadian Highway Bridge Design Code and Canadian Electrical Code – to include climate resiliency with plans to implement those codes by 2026. But Henderson says guidelines like LEED v5 (which includes significant climate resilience aspects to achieve certification) and internal environmental, social, and governance goals are what’s actually driving innovation right now.

“There will be some companies out there that, as part of their ESG mandates, require climate resilience with their developments,” he says. “It’s going to take businesses like that to really push the envelope.”

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