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Colliers worked with a local consultant to replace the aging natural-gas-fired hot-water system at Arthur Erickson Place, a 26-storey office tower at 1075 West Georgia Street (pictured) in Vancouver, with a modern heat-pump system powered by electricity and using carbon dioxide as the refrigerant.Oliver Rathonyi-Reusz/Colliers

When the water heating system of Arthur Erickson Place, a 26-storey office tower at 1075 West Georgia St. in Vancouver, was due for replacement, it gave commercial real estate services firm Colliers an opportunity to make the 1986 building much more sustainable.

The project was kickstarted by building owner KingSett Capital’s Innovation in Sustainability competition, which Colliers won.

The company worked with a local consultant to replace the aging natural-gas-fired hot-water system with a modern heat-pump system powered by electricity and using carbon dioxide as the refrigerant.

With British Columbia’s low-carbon hydroelectricity system, it enables the building to avoid approximately 40 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually.

The upgrade, which brings significant greenhouse gas reduction, is only the first step in a long-term goal of getting the building to zero carbon by 2025, says Sean Drygas, who has just been appointed Colliers’s global lead, environmental, social, and governance, a newly created senior leadership position.

Clean energy sources

It’s an example of what has become a global phenomenon: aiming for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Even oil-rich Saudi Arabia has just announced a target of achieving a net-zero emissions of greenhouse gases, which are mostly produced by burning fossil fuels, by 2060. That’s 10 years later than the current 2050 goals of Canada and the United States.

Toronto-based Colliers is going even further. It has just committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions for all buildings it occupies in 66 countries by 2030 and is developing a program for building owners and tenants to eliminate their building-related greenhouse gas production.

“A major starting point is switching to cleaner energy sources and the carbon intensity of how the electricity was generated,” Mr. Drygas says. That is extremely variable depending on location. “For instance, British Columbia, Quebec or Manitoba with large-scale hydro generation, electricity is very low carbon. However, if you’re in Alberta, Texas or China, where a lot of coal is used to generate electricity, it is much more carbon intense.”

But that’s destined to change rapidly, as natural gas, solar and wind have become cheaper than coal to produce electricity, Mr. Drygas explains.

Everyone is stepping up because they want to stay competitive, so there is a lot of friendly competition to be among the early adopters to reach net zero

Lisa Bate, global sustainability lead and senior principal, B+H Architects

For example, the owners of coal plants in Alberta are required federally to phase out by 2029, but all three have declared they are going to voluntarily phase out by 2023. “Not only do they see the writing on the wall from a regulatory standpoint, but the economics simply aren’t there anymore,” Mr. Drygas says.

The scientists who advise the United Nations (currently meeting in Glasgow, Scotland, until Nov. 12 to discuss climate change) have laid out a pathway to keeping global warming to below 2 C – ideally 1.5 C – by the end of the century.

“And to get there we need to be net zero globally by 2050. That means all electricity has to be a combination of wind, solar and hydro or nuclear, which are considered zero carbon,” Mr. Drygas says.

The Joyce Centre for Innovation at Mohawk College generates more power than it consumes.Ema Peter

Building and renovation

Architectural and structural changes to buildings should be another part of the equation, says Lisa Bate, global sustainability lead and senior principal of B+H Architects, which is committed to achieving net-zero operations in its studios around the world by 2030 and net-zero whole life carbon by 2040.

The firm, along with several of their global clients, are also signatories to the World Green Building Council’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment to eliminate operational and embodied carbon emissions from construction and renovation, promoting reuse of buildings and materials.

“Building and mechanical system upgrades have to work together because you can’t get the results you want from a mechanical retrofit if you still have a leaky envelope,” Ms. Bate says. The return on investment is proving to be very fast and can be as quick as seven years for retrofitting holistically.

Buildings from the 1970s and eighties are prime candidates for retrofitting because many were built with inefficient glazing and exterior wall assemblies prone to air leakage.

A 1989 postmodern glass block and insulated panel-clad building at Humber College in Toronto became the first retrofitted building to be certified net zero carbon by the Canada Green Building Council.doublespace photography

Photovoltaic

An example is at Humber College in Toronto, where a 1989 postmodern glass block and insulated panel-clad building became the first retrofitted building to be certified net-zero carbon by the Canada Green Building Council as well as Passive House Canada Certified.

Humber Building Nx was retrofitted in a project that included a 25-kilowatt-hour rooftop photovoltaic array; overall, the retrofit resulted in a 70-per-cent reduction in energy-use intensity, a 90-per-cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 97-per-cent reduction in heating energy required.

Building owners and tenants are aligning themselves to net-zero goals around the world because, “put simply – green buildings are more cost-effective for businesses,” says Jon Gibson, global real estate company Avison Young’s recently named global director of ESG strategy.

“A long line of investors and companies are facing demand from shareholders, clients and individuals to up their game on ESG,” he says.

B+H also worked on the Joyce Centre for Partnership and Innovation building at Mohawk College in Hamilton, where a new infill building is generating more renewable energy than it requires and is sharing it with other campus buildings.

The Joyce Centre uses a geothermal exchange system and a 28 geothermal well-storage system that transfers excess energy into the wells and extracts it when needed.

Since its completion in 2018, the geothermal system, along with photovoltaic arrays, have annually produced six years’ worth more energy than the building itself consumes; it has won several innovation awards for Mohawk College and the project team of B+H, mcCallumSather, RDH Building Science and EllisDon Constructors.

AvisonYoung's Edmonton office uses recycled denim jeans for wall insulation, which produces 53-per-cent less carbon dioxide in production than conventional fiberglass insulation.KAREY WOOD PHOTOGRAPHY & DESIGN

Recycled jeans

Being green also has advantages for talent attraction and retention.

As a younger generation enters the work force by 2025 (more than 75 per cent of the work force globally will be millennials or Gen Z), “it has become more important for companies to prioritize issues that matter to their employees – environmental sustainability being one of those issues,” Mr. Gibson says. “Let’s also remember a high proportion of decision makers within companies in certain sectors, such as tech, are in the millennial grouping.”

Avison Young is applying net-zero carbon approaches to its own offices. The Edmonton office, for instance, uses recycled denim jeans for wall insulation, which produces 53 per cent less carbon dioxide in production than conventional fibreglass insulation.

The renovation also prevented 1,180 pounds of drywall from entering landfills, eliminating 1,548 pounds of CO2 that is normally released when drywall decomposes in the landfill.

“The money you put in, you are going to get back in savings and give the building a longer lifespan because people are going to want to stay in those buildings,” B+H’s Ms. Bate says. “There is growing peer pressure. Everyone is stepping up because they want to stay competitive, so there is a lot of friendly competition to be among the early adopters to reach net zero.”

It’s estimated that 80 per cent of today’s commercial buildings will still be standing 50 years from now, she notes. “But are they going to be relevant if they don’t meet the net-zero standard?”