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Real Estate How Denmark approaches sustainable architecture – and what we can learn from them

A rendering of the T3 Bayside building on the Toronto waterfront.

3XN

Danish architects, I was warned by a publicist with the country’s consulate, are sometime a bit tongue-tied when asked to describe how they incorporate sustainability principles into their projects. Seems it’s just a thing they do.

Reframed for a Canadian audience, the question tracks a bit like asking Toronto Maples Leafs star Auston Matthews what it’s like to play with a hockey stick.

“In Denmark, that’s what’s expected,” muses architect Kolja Nielsen, chief executive of Cebra Aarhus, a Copenhagen firm that will be designing a yet-to-be unveiled mid-rise project in Toronto for Streetcar Developments. “[We] don’t market ourselves as green any more.”

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Maybe so, but Toronto’s development and design sector will – or should – be soaking up a lot from Danish approaches in coming years. Earlier this month, the international developer Hines revealed that it had selected 3XN, another Copenhagen firm, to design a two-building tall-timber office complex for a property on the south side of Queen’s Quay East, in Bayside. It will be 3XN’s second commission in the area, the first being a Hines/Tridel Corp. residential project announced in 2016, also for Bayside.

Danish firms also push past regulatory requirements or even green-building certification standards, such as LEED.

3XN

These firms, according to their principals, take a broad-ranging approach to sustainable architecture, one that incorporates all the predictable elements (that includes passive design, low-carbon materials and energy efficiency), but also pushes past regulatory requirements or even green building certification standards, such as LEED.

3XN, for example, sees buildings as “material banks,” so its architects look for opportunities to work with components that can be easily re-used in the future. The 120-person partnership also operates a 20-employee green R&D subsidiary called GXN that has developed up-cycled building products, including LED light fixtures fashioned from discarded nylon fishing nets.

Senior partner Kasper Guldager Jensen, who heads GXN, says the goal is to weave these and other sustainable design ideas into a broader framework that incorporates the social and financial viability of their projects. “If we talk about sustainability, we have to talk about value creation,” he explains, noting that such projects last longer, improve surrounding urban streetscape, cost less to maintain and therefore see their value grow more significantly than ordinary buildings.

Nielsen adds that Danish builders no longer question the connection between green design and long-term value. “A lot of our clients go beyond [regulations].” Condo investors get it, too. “You’ll get higher prices in 15 years when you sell.”

A subsidiary of Copenhagen-based architectural firm 3XN has developed up-cycled building products, including LED light fixtures fashioned from discarded nylon fishing nets.

3XN

Such approaches are nothing if not timely, given the increasingly dire predictions about climate change. Owing to their energy requirements and the nature of carbon-intensive construction materials such as concrete, buildings are estimated to account for about 40 per cent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions, and thus represent a critical front in the fight to mitigate climate change.

Recent changes to Ontario’s building code have boosted energy performance requirements, and the City of Toronto tightened up its Green Standard last May. For all that, Canada’s building sector lags well behind its northern European counterpart. In some cases, that’s due to strict code requirements. Mr. Nielsen notes one rule that caps that amount of window area on a building to just more than a fifth of the overall floor space or compels the builder to install triple-pane thermal glass.

Ontario’s building code has no such requirement and allows workarounds that have produced high-rise buildings clad mainly in glass, with many south and west-facing units suffering from chronic temperature control problems. On a recent visit, in fact, Mr. Nielsen took particular note of a common practice: concrete balcony slabs connected directly to the concrete interior floors, a construction short-cut, he says, that virtually guarantees heat loss and condensation.

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3XN lighting fixtures.

3XN

Other approaches these designers use include:

  • Air quality. To explain the importance of aligning sustainability with the experiential aspect of design, Mr. Guldager notes that in a typical day, an adult will consume a kilogram of food, three kilograms of liquid and 15 kilograms of air. That insight has prompted 3XN to encourage its clients to rely on natural interior materials, such as wood or gypsum, rather than chemical-intensive products (for example, area carpets made of synthetic fibre). Natural materials may also be better for capturing and distributing heat and cooling.
  • German green standards. Instead of the often contentious LEED standard, Cebra aims for a more far-ranging certification developed in Germany, known as DGNB. A life-cycle standard that looks beyond a building’s environmental and energy performance, DGNB has become an increasingly popular certification method internationally, but especially in Germany. A recent U.S. Green Buildings Council study showed that DGNB certified more than 1000 buildings there, compared with just 57 LEED projects for 2017.
  • Parametric design. With its Streetcar project, Cebra will use an approach known as “parametric design,” which uses specialized software to generate hundreds of iterations of a project based on the parameters for the site. “It can make a thousand models for you in an hour,” Mr. Nielsen says. The algorithms optimize for different variables, including energy efficiency and building configuration. Other European firms have adopted parametric design to boost project sustainability, and the technique has been used to improve glazing to reduce the effects of solar loading in tall buildings. Cebra’s team will sift through the results and narrow the list to about 10 that are presented to the client, Mr. Nielsen says. “It’s the survival of the fittest.”

3XN

This article is the first in an occasional series about recent advances in sustainable design and construction.

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