Cities and climate change

Toon Dreessen
Photo by Mirv Photography

Whether you believe in carbon taxes or cap and trade, there is no denying that human activity is having an impact on our planet. And if you don’t believe that, or don’t believe in taking any action, this column isn’t going to change your mind.

Some 80 per cent of Canada’s population lives in cities. The 10 largest cities are home to nearly half our population. According to the Architecture 2030 Challenge, the urban built environment accounts for 75 per cent of global greenhouse gases, with buildings responsible for nearly 40 per cent alone.

Every car on the road today will be replaced in the next decade; every building we plan today will be here in 50 years. It is important we invest in energy efficiency where it has the biggest impact and affects half our population. Not only do we do something good for the planet, we improve our quality of life and save money.   

It’s easy to tackle climate change if we think strategically and plan properly. This is where C40 Cities comes into play. This is a network of cities to share data, take action and build global bridges on climate leadership.

In August 2018, mayors from around the world including those from Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver signed the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Declaration. The declaration states that new buildings will operate at net zero carbon by 2030 and all buildings by 2050.  

Ottawa can, and should, get on board. We have significant advantages, including:

  • A thriving technology sector;
  • Independent, world-class research facilities to study and monitor projects;
  • Support for innovation centres of expertise;
  • Many publicly owned buildings;
  • A vibrant population that believes in taking climate action; and
  • An engaged political landscape.

For those who argue that combating climate change through sustainable urban development in the form of energy efficiency improvements and retrofits doesn’t make financial sense, I beg to differ.

Spending marginally more to make the systems more efficient is a no-brainer; spending a fraction more to make the building use only as much energy as it can generate isn’t a lot harder.

Suppose you have a building where the HVAC systems are 15-20 years old, the windows and roofing are of a similar vintage, and it’s costing you tens of thousands of dollars a year in utility bills. In order to keep attracting tenants, you have to replace, repair or upgrade the HVAC systems and provide better lighting.

The No. 1 place for efficiency is in the envelope. This is the part the public sees: the windows and walls that give us the beautiful city we love also provide the insulation to keep out the cold or heat, protection from the elements, air leakage and loss of cooled air.

The basic cost of upgrades or repairs is a given, since you’d have to incur that expense anyway. Spending marginally more to make the systems more efficient is a no-brainer; spending a fraction more to make the building use only as much energy as it can generate isn’t a big stretch. You can do the math and see that the payback isn’t very long and gets shorter as utility costs rise.

Governments are ideally positioned to take this leadership role; they are expected to invest in buildings and hold them in the public trust for generations.

Beyond LEED

We all know the term LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) and understand its rating system of certified, silver, gold and platinum. There is no doubt that this system has been an excellent way of raising public awareness of sustainable buildings.

But it doesn’t go far enough.

We’re at a tipping point in climate action and need to be much more aggressive if we are going to have a chance of hitting global targets. New buildings need to reach for more than LEED Gold; there is no reason, other than political will, to strive for zero carbon, or net zero energy, or both, on every city owned asset.

It’s not just new buildings. We spend millions of dollars every year in energy costs for aging infrastructure. Instead of little projects to repair or replace pieces of buildings, we need to look holistically and think strategically:

  • Look at the worst offenders in all our buildings with detailed building condition reports that assess the age of the building, operating cost and social value; this is work that should be led by architects who can see, synthesize and understand how all components of a building come together. Since we designed the building to begin with, it’s natural that we lead holistic building reviews.
  • Establish a long-term plan for capital investment that is depoliticized; this focuses the efforts on investment in the public interest and provides a roadmap for future budget planning.
  • Examine the procurement model for hiring architects and engineers. No buildings is identical to another; even similar buildings will have suffered different maintenance schedules, usage patterns and environmental conditions. If firms have similar technical abilities and experience, price becomes the selection determinant and drives down the ability to innovate, explore options and deliver best value.

If Ottawa wants to continue leading, we need to take a more aggressive role in climate change. Changing how we value the built environment, making sustainable, smart, investments to build a lasting legacy is in the public interest.

Toon Dreessen is president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and past-president of the Ontario Association of Architects. For a sample of Architects DCA’s projects, check out the firm’s portfolio at bit.ly/DCA-portfolio. Follow @ArchitectsDCA on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram.