December 3, 2007

Eco-efficiency report sets out blueprint for greener commercial buildings

A new report released by Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) sets out a blueprint for greener commercial buildings in Canada. The report, part of SDTC's Sustainable Development Business Case series, highlights the technical and non-technical changes in design, construction and maintenance needed to reduce the amount of energy and water used and waste generated by commercial buildings in Canada.

"The commercial building sector accounts for about 14% of secondary energy use in Canada and has seen energy-related GHG emissions increase 42% between 1990 and 2004," said SDTC president and CEO Dr Vicky Sharpe. "For this sector to change direction, we need a whole new approach to both the way we design, build and use commercial buildings as well as the regulations and policies that guide these activities," she added.

The magnitude of this sector's environmental impact is illustrated by a few more pertinent statistics. SDTC reports that there are currently about 395,000 commercial buildings in Canada, up from 379,000 in 2004. Commercial energy consumption increased by 35% between 1990 and 2004, and in 2004, commercial buildings generated about 14.26 metric tonnes of solid waste. Commercial buildings currently consume about 1.2 trillion litres per year of municipally-treated water.

For the purposes of this report, the commercial buildings category includes offices, institutional and public service facilities such as health care and education, as well as hospitality, entertainment, and retail and wholesale trade buildings. Multi-unit residential buildings (MURBs) are not included in much of the analysis, as they are classified as residential buildings by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). SDTC notes, however, that many of the technologies and issues do apply to MURBs.

The focus of the analysis is on building operations. Although embodied energy, material selection, construction, and demolition are important in a life-cycle approach to buildings, the largest environmental impacts are a result of the operation of buildings. SDTC notes that operations are the most important aspect of commercial building eco-efficiency analysis.

Among its recommendations for technical changes recommended, the report stresses the importance of improved system and equipment efficiencies as well as the development of integrated design processes.

"Right now, too many of the key players in the development and operation of your typical commercial building work in isolation, focusing on their niche of expertise," said Dr Sharpe. "We need real-world demonstrations that break the silos in the design process to align the concepts of liability and economic viability to comfort and usability."

Other technical needs are discussed under the following headings.

*Integrated Building Design: This refers to the process of designing and siting sustainable buildings while optimizing resource use, building functionality, and occupant comfort. The measures are built around the central theme of the integrated design process.

*Building Envelope Improvements: There is a need to implement best available and best emerging technologies as well as a need for "next generation" building envelope technologies to minimize thermal transfer and maximize the use of available natural resources.

*Operator and Occupant Management Tools: There is a need for technologies that help building operators and occupants be aware of, and respond to, individual resource consumption, while maintaining or improving indoor environmental quality.

*System and Equipment Efficiency Improvements: This involves the application of high-efficiency mechanical and electrical equipment used throughout the building.

*Optimized Resource Supply: This includes making the best use of conventional resource supplies, maximizing the use of available natural resources, and the re-using existing building resources.

Among the most important of the non-technical changes recommended by the report are accurate data, improved eco-labeling and life-cycle-based performance standards that will enable certification of buildings on a life cycle rather than on an as-built basis.

"Switching to a life-cycle approach is crucial if we are to truly achieve on-going sustainability in our commercial buildings," said Rick Whittaker, Vice President, Investments at SDTC. "Progress has been made over the last few years with the rise of LEED designation and other tools, but more work needs to be done to establish at-a-glance, meaningful measurements that give owners and tenants sustainability indicators to help in their decision-making."

Non-technical needs are summarized as follows.

*Price on Carbon: SDTC reports agreement among industry stakeholders that the single largest driver of sustainable buildings could be a realistic and consistent price on fossil fuel-based carbon.

*Integrated Supply Chain: There needs to be greater agreement among all relevant parties regarding the system requirements as well as the economic, resource, productivity, and recyclability performance of buildings. These parties include building owners, financiers, architects, engineers, contractors, suppliers, managers and operators, municipalities and utilities.

*Integrated Building Practices: There is a need for integrated practices in regional planning, project financing and compensation, construction and building operation.

*Improved Building Codes and Greater Enforcement: The report also cites agreement by industry stakeholders that a more advanced building code, such as the Model National Energy Code for Buildings, is urgently needed. It must be supported by stronger enforcement measures that are updated on a regular basis.

*Continuous Reporting: Measurable, defensible and reproducible financial assessments are needed, based on realistic building performance data.

*Information Exchange: Building designers need to learn from the experiences from the installation and long-term operation of high-performance buildings. A centralized information exchange, similar to the ones in the United States and Europe, could be developed in Canada.

*Sustainability Ethic in Education: Sustainability needs to be integrated throughout course curricula in the growing number of new and innovative sustainability programs that are beginning to emerge in Canada's post-secondary educational institutions.

Finally, the report outlines a vision statement for commercial buildings in which these structures will, by 2030, consume 65% less municipal water and produce 85% less solid waste than in 2007 and will have reduced their energy consumption by 50% from the current level.

Commercial Buildings-Eco-efficiency is the fifth in SDTC's series of Sustainable Development Business Case reports. These reports, prepared in consultation with industry, policymakers and academic experts, are used to guide SDTC's investment decisions. Previous SD Business Case reports addressed the subjects of Renewable Electricity, Clean Conventional Fuels, Biofuels, and Hydrogen. All the reports may be viewed in the Knowledge Centre section of SDTC's Web site, www.sdtc.ca.

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