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climate change

Is Canada a green leader or a LEED laggard when it comes to building for climate change and the 21st-century environment? One of Canada’s biggest commercial developers hopes to Stack the deck.

Oxford Properties Group is building the Stack officer tower in downtown Vancouver – the largest development now under way in that city and one of the first high-rise buildings in Canada to be built to the “net zero carbon” emissions standard.

The project, whose ownership is shared equally by Oxford and Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, will meet the standard launched last year by the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC), which also licenses the better-known LEED (leadership in environmental excellence and design) standards, which recognize different levels of sustainability in construction and maintenance.

“This has never been done in an office tower in Canada before,” says Daniel O’Donnell, Oxford Properties’ director of media. Construction will begin next year on the Class AAA, 540,000-square-foot office development, which will be 161.5 metres high and 36 storeys, making it the tallest in the city, with completion scheduled for 2022.

The Stack office tower, viewed from Melville Street in Vancouver, rises 36 storeys and features an intricate stacked box design.Hand-out

Net zero carbon is a big – and necessary – step forward for commercial construction in a world that will be buffeted more and more by climate change, with Canada not excluded, says Andrew McAllan, Oxford’s head of real estate management and former chair of CaGBC.

“There’s a convergence of interests in sustainable building. Some are altruistic and some are just good, old-fashioned capitalism,” he says.

On the capitalism side, the Stack has already secured preleases for 207,00 square feet – more than a third of the building, which is still on the drawing board. Three major tenants are on board: Ernst & Young LLP, and major law firms Blakes and DLA Piper.

It is also in developers’ self-interest to cater to environment-friendly trends, such as building in downtown areas closer to where office workers live, and to add amenities, such as easy-to-reach facilities for storing bicycles and parking shared cars, Mr. McAllan says.

On the altruistic side, being at the forefront of the movement toward zero net carbon commercial construction helps Canada meet its commitments to reducing emissions under the Paris Agreement on climate change.

To meet the new standard, buildings such as the Stack must offset all the greenhouse gases they emit in operations – whether by producing clean, renewable energy onsite or securing it from offsite sources such as wind, solar or hydroelectric facilities.

This is more important than ever in light of increasingly alarming evidence that climate change is contributing to or causing extreme weather events.

On Nov. 23, 13 U.S. government departments and agencies released their fourth comprehensive national climate assessment, which includes a dire warning. Damage from climate change will slash the U.S. economy by as much as 10 per cent by 2100 unless action is taken.

The projected 10-per-cent drop in gross domestic product is nearly double the losses that followed the recession after the 2008 global economy crash. Canada is highly dependent on U.S. trade, with both countries and Mexico about to ratify a new North American free-trade agreement (the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement).

The 1,656 page report was made public by U.S. President Donald Trump’s White House, even though the Trump administration has pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement and slashed environmental regulations, which critics say will cause greenhouse emissions and pollution to rise.

With this environmental mess on the horizon, how does Canada fare in the race to build more environmentally sustainable commercial buildings or upgrade existing ones? Generally we’re doing well but there’s a lot of heavy lifting still to be done, experts say.

“Overall, Canada ranks very high in terms of green building construction. Since 2004, the CaGBC has certified over 3,600 LEED buildings in Canada and registered over 7,600,” says Trevor McLeod, building automation and energy specialist at Starlight Investments, a Toronto-based institutional investor that holds stakes in real estate across North America.

“We have the second highest number of LEED projects anywhere in the world, second only to the United States. This is a huge accomplishment and we should be proud, but we could always do more if the political and public will is there,” he says.

“More than ever, sustainability is now in the conversation with regard to building design or retrofits, so things are moving in the right direction."

Nevertheless, “the speed at which we are doing so could be greatly improved if we are to hit our Paris climate agreement targets on time or even surpass them,” Mr. McLeod adds. The Paris Agreement, which Ottawa ratified in 2016, requires Canada to cut nationwide carbon emissions by 2030 below the levels that were emitted in 2005.

Mr. McAllan and Mr. McLeod both say that commercial developers are in tune with the need to address climate change and sustainability in their building practices, while residential builders tend to lag.

“Building owners are already having to adjust construction for erratic weather,” Mr. McLeod says.

“Regulators are passing legislation to bring about across-the-board change but you also see lenders and insurers see the potential risk association with climate change,” he adds.

“Owners see the potential for higher rates of occupancy for longer and at a higher price per square foot in a green-certified building, and tenants see the benefits in higher employee productivity and retention, and reduced sick days and energy use.”

He also notes that, “the Canadian government has mandated that all new commercial leases be within LEED-certified spaces."

There’s still a lot more to be done, because Canada has so many commercial buildings that will need to be retrofitted to deal with climate change. But the future for green building in Canada will be interesting, to say the least, Mr. McLeod says.

With the internet of things coming of age and the price of sensors falling, it might be something like The Jetsons. Green building will evolve in some dramatic ways to reduce our energy and environmental impact, and I think that is something to be excited about,” he says.

The gold standard is green

The World Green Building Council says the definition of a “net zero carbon” building is one that’s highly energy efficient and fully powered from on-site or off-site renewable energy sources, or both.