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Roof top garden designed by Toronto-based PLANT Architects at Toronto City Hall on Queen St., Toronto June 3, 2011.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

To the unknowing eye, they might appear like any other home, warehouse, office or building, but from concept and materials to water and energy, they are a different breed.

These green-certified structures are relatively new to Canadian architecture. The first building stamped with a designation of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) was a technology centre in Victoria a decade ago.

Today, there are nearly 500 green buildings, or spaces within buildings, in Canada but only about two dozen have achieved platinum LEED, the top rating. This prized status is hard to get, noted Thomas Mueller, president of the Canada Green Building Council.

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Projects must pass an independent audit before certification. Points are awarded based on water and energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and the environmental friendliness of construction materials and the development site. Four LEED levels are possible: certified, silver, gold and platinum.

Building to green standards costs more, but Mr. Mueller said those dollars are recovered over time through lower utility bills. A LEED building is more energy efficient, produces fewer greenhouse-gas emissions, and tends to provide cleaner air to the people who live or work in them. Buildings account for almost a third of Canada's annual greenhouse-gas emissions.

"It would be good to get more builders and developers and landlords on board," Mr. Mueller said. "This is really something that has a long-term benefit for Canadians in terms of reducing environmental impacts."

In the Greater Toronto Area, only a handful of places has received LEED platinum status. We took a look at three of them, breaking down what makes them so green.

Enermodal Engineering, 119 Spadina Ave., Suite 901, Toronto

It's no surprise that Enermodal Engineering's downtown Toronto office is a model of sustainable development. The Kitchener-based firm is among the country's leading green-building consultants.

Its Toronto office is on the ninth floor of the historic Balfour Building on the corner of Spadina Avenue and Adelaide Street. Inside, daylight sensors have been attached to blinds and lighting to reduce energy waste. The bamboo cabinetry and woodwork originated in a well-managed, certified forest and the countertops were made from recycled paper.

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Much of the paint and gypsum board also came from recycled materials and many of the furnishings were clad in wool, a highly renewable material. The office sources its energy from a green power provider and limits the spraying of harmful chemical cleaners.

As a result, the office uses 53 per cent less water and 37 per cent less energy than it would have.

Chapelview apartments, 16 John St., Brampton

This $40-million, 15-storey rental apartment building northwest of Toronto is the first affordable-housing development in Canada to achieve LEED Platinum. It started as a typical government-funded housing project: The idea to make it green came from John D'Angelo, president of Martinway Developments.

To cover higher construction costs – roughly $3-million – Mr. D'Angelo turned to his suppliers and business leaders, seeking discounts on materials through a corporate sponsorship program. The end result is a building that offers healthier air to its residents and lower energy costs.

"All the units are airtight. There is absolutely no exhausting of any fumes whatsoever. All the glues, spray foams, everything that was used was toxic-free, water-based," Mr. D'Angelo said. "When you walked into this building during construction, you smelled absolutely nothing."

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Other features include doors made from a wheat-based product, hallway lighting controlled by sensors, low-flow toilets and a park on the roof. There's also a unique garbage-sorting system that allows tenants to send their trash down a chute for either waste, recycling or organic collection.

Knoll showroom, 109 Atlantic Ave., Toronto

At Knoll's furniture showroom in Liberty Village, natural light floods the revitalized 19th-century industrial space, limiting the need for fluorescent lights. Much of the wood used in construction was grown and manufactured locally.

As with other LEED buildings, recycled materials are everywhere, including in the carpet. On the walls, paint with low volatile organic compounds was applied to reduce toxins released into the air.

From Knoll's showrooms to the desks and chairs it creates, sustainable design is a core philosophy for the international office-furniture maker. Knoll has cut down on chemicals and adhesives in the goods it sells. Its leather comes from byproducts of animals used in the meat-packing industry.

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