Skip to main content

Developer Oxford Properties says The Hub, a 57-storey office tower located near the foot of Bay Street next to Toronto’s venerable Harbour Commission building, will be the first 'net zero' office tower in Canada.Oxford Properties

When Oxford Properties breaks ground on The Hub, a 57-storey office tower located near the foot of Bay Street next to Toronto’s venerable Harbour Commission building, the OMERS-owned development giant will embarking on what it claims will become the first “net zero” office tower in Canada.

Set to open in 2024, the glass-and-column high-rise, designed by London-based Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, will feature a full suite of emission-reduction systems, including triple-glazed windows, LED lighting, rooftop solar and a “dedicated outdoor air” system that uncouples the heating and cooling mechanisms from the ventilation network, an efficiency-boosting approach to standard HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning).

Darryl Neate, Oxford’s director of sustainability, says the designers are also scouting around for other savings, including recycling waste heat and even the purchase of carbon offsets. Oxford aims to have The Hub, which is part of a Canadian Green Building Council carbon pilot project, certified as a LEED Platinum building.

Such projects will help the City of Toronto make good on a voluntary plan announced by Mayor John Tory earlier this month to work with large land owners and developers to accelerate their energy savings and emission reductions by establishing five-year targets. By most estimates, buildings account for about 40 per cent of all carbon emissions from human sources.

The Hub will feature a full suite of emission-reduction systems, including triple-glazed windows, LED lighting, rooftop solar and a 'dedicated outdoor air' system.Oxford Properties

The “Green Will” partnership so far involves several of the city’s largest landowners, with a combined footprint of more than 300 million square feet. The list includes the city, Toronto Community Housing, universities, hospitals, school boards as well as private developers such as Oxford, Cadillac Fairview and Brookfield.

But when Mr. Tory announced the plan, which calls for benchmarking, auditing and retrofit capital planning, the list of participants didn’t include condo developers and apartment building operators, such as Tridel, Greenwin Inc. or Shiplake Properties. (Oxford’s portfolio includes some mixed-use multiunit residential buildings.)

In an interview, Mr. Tory says he’s continuing to reach out to apartment building companies, and also hopes to enlist the thousands of small landlords who own low-rise commercial structures, such as medical arts buildings, a category he describes as the “toughest” to reach.

And while the Green Will strategy aims to demonstrate the city’s leadership, Scarborough councillor Jennifer McKelvie says, it’s clear that one other large category of property owners is conspicuously missing from the plan: homeowners.

“When you think of where the carbon is in buildings, it is largely in the existing stock,” says Corey McBurney, president of EnerQuality, a third-party certification organization that works with developers and auditors to verify the energy efficiency ratings of new residential buildings in Ontario. “What are we doing to lower [homeowners’] carbon footprint? To date, we haven’t done nearly enough.”

His point highlights one of several obstacles in the city’s attempt to accelerate its decarbonization goals over the next 20 to 30 years, and also reveals the very different approaches to energy efficiency management employed by different categories of property owners and builders.

In general, the Ontario Building Code and the recently updated Toronto Green Standard have set a fairly high bar for new buildings. All new development applications submitted after May, 2018, have had to meet the first tier of the green standard, which requires the dwelling to be 15 per cent more energy efficient than what’s specified in the OBC. Builders who voluntarily exceed that target can qualify for various financial incentives, such as development charge reductions.

But these codes have little to say about how property owners manage the carbon performance of existing buildings. Some asset managers, especially large office developers such as Brookfield, have been aggressive in recent years in driving down energy consumption, using a range of emerging technologies, including building automation systems. The savings go to the bottom line. Firms such as Oxford even tie their managers’ compensation packages to meeting or exceeding energy reduction targets. “It’s about holding people accountable for results,” Mr. Neate says.

Mr. McBurney says a growing number of homebuilders now design dwellings to meet the EnergyStar rating, which requires a home to be 20 per cent more efficient than the OBC. About half of all new homes now carry the rating, he adds, noting that EnerQuality recently extended this certification to multiunit high-rise buildings.

With homeowners and small contractors, however, the story is quite different, with a far larger range of results. Some poorly designed home renovations or rebuilds can boost energy consumption, or do little more than meet the building code requirements. Others feature all sorts of energy efficiency or renewable energy features, from tankless electric hot-water heaters to roof-top solar systems.

While Ms. McKelvie notes that Toronto offers loans for such projects, she feels there should be more incentives available, and adds that the city could also be doing more to facilitate such investments, for example by providing homeowners with information on how to do group purchases of roof-top solar systems in order to reduce prices.

Mr. Tory added that his office has reached out to large Canadian financial institutions about developing new lending instruments, such as “green mortgages,” which offer reduced terms for borrowers investing in home energy retrofits. He was recently in London, talking to British bankers about such products. “There’s huge interest there in financial projects to help with green projects,” he says.

The hesitant homeowner problem could take a turn after the federal election. In an interesting ideological alignment, all four major parties are promising various inducements, including $40,000 interest-free home energy retrofit loans (Liberals), a 20-per-cent tax credit on “green” improvements worth up to $3,800 on a $20,000 project (Conservatives) and low-interest loans with repayment terms tied to energy savings (NDP and Greens).

Reflecting on what he describes as the “voluntary collaboration” model that underpins initiatives such as Mr. Tory’s Green Will program, Mr. McBurney describes these efforts as “positive,” but doubts they are sufficient, given council’s goal of accelerating the city’s emission reduction targets in light of a worsening climate crisis. As he says, “I wonder if the city will take an even tougher line.”

This article is part of an occasional series about recent advances in sustainable design and construction.

Your house is your most valuable asset. We have a weekly Real Estate newsletter to help you stay on top of news on the housing market, mortgages, the latest closings and more. Sign up today.