Skip to main content

Rendering of a 12-storey, U-shaped rental building on Eastern Ave. in Toronto proposed by real estate developer TAS.TAS

When TAS decided to build a 12-storey, U-shaped rental building on Eastern Avenue in the south end of Toronto’s Leslieville neighbourhood, the developer asked its architects to come up with a net zero design that satisfied the most exacting level of the Toronto Green Standard (TGS), the city’s highly regarded policy for reducing building emissions in new projects.

According to design team member Aaron Budd, an architect who heads the regenerative practice group at SvN, the building will include a range of environmental features, from bike parking to a green roof, storm water recycling and energy efficiency features, that will reduce long-term operating costs associated with heating and cooling.

The TGS, which was introduced in 2006 and has been updated by Toronto’s city council four times since then, is an innovative tiered approach to green building design, which includes a basic level that all new projects must satisfy and three higher levels that qualify for incentives, such as reduced development charges. The lowest tier, notably, exceeds the mandatory minimum energy efficiency requirements set out in the Ontario Building Code. The TGS’s so-called “step code” approach is designed to increase the basic Tier 1 requirements on a predictable schedule.

TAS, says Mr. Budd, “are definitely fine with meeting the minimum requirements of the TGS and they felt those are all very much in line with their kind of ethos.” But, he adds, “they’re also interested in going beyond that.”

Indeed, TAS’s strategy is to have all its buildings achieve net zero by 2045, with 880 Eastern as the first project. “Since we have already set an ambitious target for energy efficiency as part of our commitment to achieving net zero, it made sense for us to also target TGS Tier 2,” Liza Stiff, vice-president of impact implementation and innovation, said in a statement.

According to a city spokesperson, there have been more than 3,000 new developments required to meet TGS Tier 1 since 2010, as well as 73 certified as having met Tier 2 or higher and 85 currently enrolled in a Tier 2+ refund program, with an additional 100 indicating an interest.

Yet, the Ontario’s government’s new housing acceleration legislation, Bill-23, contains a provision that could effectively kill the TGS, leaving the City of Toronto with fewer policy tools to achieve its own 2040 and 2050 carbon reduction targets. The amendments are very subtle, and curtail the ability of municipal planning departments to regulate exterior and sustainability features of development proposals during what’s known as the “site plan approval” process.

“This is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water,” says Daniel Hall, president of The Architect Builders Collaborative, a firm that specializes in green design and has marshalled a group of 21 leading designers to oppose the change.

At risk are a range of sustainable design standards, from the use of bird-friendly windows to native species, porous exterior surfaces, and energy efficiency features. City officials are preparing a brief to the government about B-23′s impact on the TGS. “It does definitely limit our ability and [those of] a lot of other cities who have follow our lead,” says landscape architect Jane Welsh, who is the city’s project manager for environmental policy.

The omnibus legislation, dubbed the More Homes Built Faster Act, has passed second reading and is now being reviewed by a standing committee. From an environmental perspective, it is more definitely a mixed bag, and includes positive measures to drive intensification around transit stops and in house neighbourhoods, but also highly problematic reforms, such as reducing the ability of conservation authorities to protect watersheds.

Liberal MPP Mary-Margaret McMahon, a former city councillor and a proponent of the TGS, says the changes will “essentially kill the TGS.” “Why would we mess with a good thing?” She says she’ll be pushing the Ford government to alter the amendments that declaw the TGS.

Other observers, including Mr. Hall, feel there’s room for a compromise that doesn’t set the two policy priorities – more housing and lower emissions – against one another. “Housing versus climate is the problem of our century,” Ms. Stiff says. “Building more while polluting less is a challenge that we are capable of surmounting, however doing so will take collaboration across industries, stakeholders, and policy-makers.”

The city does have other policy tools at its disposal, such as the use of bylaws that formally legislate tougher environmental standards – something that hasn’t been done to date.

On the carrot-side of the equation, however, the Tories’ legislation has limited the city’s ability to impose development charges, which potentially removes a form of leverage that the planning department can use to persuade builders to design projects that meet the higher tiers of the TGS. Those incentives are essentially a public-policy equivalent to other voluntary green standards, such as LEED or Passive House, but with financial benefits anted up by the city.

Mr. Budd points out that very few developers initiate projects by demanding that they are designed to the absolute minimum standards.

He adds that SvN (and indeed a growing number of architectural firms) now incorporate green features into their designs as a matter of course. He cites examples such as reduced window-to-wall ratios, which produce more energy efficient buildings with less glazing, the use of higher performing window systems, or the installation of better insulation. “We want to bake them into our design.”

The question, of course, is whether or not developers will continue to invest in lower-carbon design without these requirements, either out of a sense of social responsibility or because such elements provide a marketing or operational dividend? Other city-regions, including New York and B.C.’s Lower Mainland, have not left such choices up to market forces, and continue to use a mix of incentives and penalties to drive carbon reduction in buildings.

Mr. Hall cites the example of one of the most encouraging developments in the push to reduce building carbon, which is the growing adoption of tall timber construction. The concern, he says, “is the loss of the ability to incentivize it.” The legislation, he continues, is effectively forcing a false choice between affordability and sustainability. “It really sets this thing up like you can only focus on one thing.”

Where’s the data?

In the dying days of Kathleen Wynne’s term as premier, the Ontario Liberal government passed regulations requiring the owners of large buildings to disclose their energy and water consumption as a means of creating a benchmarking system that would provide property managers with an incentive to drive improvements.

But soon after the Ford government took office, it promptly rolled back those rules, with the result that while the owners of larger buildings still do have to provide this information, but the province doesn’t make it public, either for individual buildings or in the aggregate.

That latter figure, says University of Toronto building science expert Ted Kesik, is the kind of data that would allow policy-makers, such as the planners implementing the TGS, to understand if their efforts are, in fact, reducing building-related carbon, which accounts for about half of Toronto’s greenhouse gases.

“With all of the brouhaha over Bill 23, people continue to ignore that the Ontario government is continuing to withhold data about energy and water consumption while delaying full implementation of [the regulation],” he says. “How are you supposed to do benchmarking if you don’t have data?”

Prof. Kesik points out that one of the short-comings of the TGS is that much of it is voluntary, and, moreover, city officials don’t have a strong understanding of whether these programs are moving the needle. He and others have similar long-standing concerns about green building certification systems like LEED, which builders obtain by incorporating design elements from check-lists. The actual energy performance of the finished building, however, isn’t part of the certification process. “All you’re doing is making promises,” says Prof. Kesik.

What the city should be doing is checking to see whether Toronto’s growing portfolio of TGS compliant buildings has produced measurable carbon reductions, he says. “Everyone is making claims but no one has any evidence. … TGS has noble aspirations, but you have to give it teeth. [The standards] have to become the Ontario Building Code requirement.”