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24 Sussex is a national treasure that should be restored, not demolished

Benjamin Shinewald is the president and CEO of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada.

Everyone agrees that 24 Sussex Drive is a shambles, but no one agrees on what should be done with the place. From selling it to demolishing it, renovating it to rebuilding it, the ideas circulating speak to widespread public illiteracy with respect to the most basic elements of property management.

Consider how we got here. For decades, it has become an article of faith for Canadian prime ministers to brag about how cheap they were when it came to the official residence. Prime minister after prime minister refused to maintain, much less invest in, the mansion also known by its Welsh name, Gorffwysfa.

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The results are as predictable as they are embarrassing. Canada's most famous residence is filled with knob-and-tube wiring, largely inaccessible to the disabled and full of asbestos. Who can blame our new Prime Minister – particularly given his young children – for choosing to live across the street at Rideau Cottage, a residence that at least has fire sprinklers? Would you rent a home in such a sorry state?

But the truth is, we all went along for the ride. Our past prime ministers' thrifty messaging resonated with a public eager to see politicians pinching public pennies. At some point, we taxpayers began taking a perverse pride in what might be the most neglected official residence on the planet.

And then – surprise! – there was a sudden cost to our willful blindness. Forgoing basic preventive maintenance and incremental investment caught up with us, ballooning into expensive repair.

The Auditor-General even sounded alarm bells, warning that the residence was "showing signs of fatigue and wear, and require(s) extensive repair work." The estimated costs exceeded the property's underlying value, and were nudging into eight figures – and that was in 2008.

Making matters worse, 24 Sussex Drive's environmental impact is disgraceful. In an era when Canadian property management firms are leading the world in certifying the sustainability of existing buildings, our prime ministers were living in an energy hog, with plastic sheets stapled to window frames in winter and multiple air conditioning units replacing them in summer.

This is nuts. Any asset must be maintained, and a valuable asset like 24 Sussex Drive should be treasured.

Worse still, some are now advancing the ridiculous notion that the historic residence should be torn down and replaced with a new, ostensibly super-green facility.

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But this approach profoundly misunderstands what green buildings are, and what they are not.

Many people mistakenly equate green buildings with the shiny, dazzling towers rising across our largest cities. And while it is true that these buildings are generally designed to be green, a great number of them fail to perform as promised. This is because the armies of green building designers overwhelmingly neglect to consider whether end-use building operators will be able to operate the structures sustainably.

In other words, buildings are not static entities with fixed environmental profiles. Rather, they are highly complex, IT-driven mini-ecosystems, where property managers' decisions affect GHG emissions, water use intensity and indoor air quality far more than architects' plans.

Moreover, as many studies have shown, the greenest buildings are the ones already built. New or old, big or small, gorgeous or ugly, certifying the environmental performance of existing buildings will always be the most cost-effective and environmentally efficient way to drive sustainability in the real estate sector. Demolition, waste disposal and rebuild all have environmental costs, too, but simple operating improvements on existing buildings can have a dramatic environmental impact.

The cumulative effect of this approach is remarkable. Since the number of existing buildings always far exceeds those being built, reducing the environmental profiles of existing buildings even just a little has a far greater benefit on our natural environment than the design of new structures.

It is time that we ceased the fetishization of the new and recognized the opportunity sitting right before our eyes: properly managing existing buildings drives financial and environmental benefits for owners, occupants and the broader public.

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Which takes us back to 24 Sussex Drive. It is now in a state so deplorable that it needs multimillion dollar investment. Let's do it. Let's restore this jewel to its earlier grandeur, and let it be a symbol of environmental sustainability and of the proper maintenance of public infrastructure across our country.

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