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A realistic path to sustainability for Canada’s construction industry

For Canada’s construction industry, sustainable operations and materials are paramount in a bid f...

Sarah Bingham, Director of Development and Sustainability, Adera

Sarah Bingham is the director of development and sustainability at Adera Developments in Vancouver (Courtesy Adera Developments).

For Canada’s construction industry, sustainable operations and materials are paramount in a bid for environmentally conscious practices. 

It is no secret that the global environment is currently in a precarious position. According to the United Nations, global net emissions must fall to zero by 2050 if we are to limit the rise in global temperatures and keep them within arms reach of pre-industrial levels. Thus far, Canada has talked the talk, and in 2019 the federal government committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) to net-zero by 2050; an ambitious goal, but one that will impact the development and construction industries immensely as they determine how to conduct business in a post-COVID world and adopt sustainable practices.

For the construction industry, in particular, a path toward implementing many of the plans necessary to adopt sustainable practices has been fragmented. According to a recent report from the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, 76 per cent of the energy needs of Canada’s buildings come from fossil fuels such as natural gas or from electricity generated by fossil fuels, producing 73 million tonnes of GHG emissions or 10 per cent of the nation’s emissions.

Step code — one half of the sustainability puzzle

In British Columbia, the drive is strong to move towards net-zero emissions for newly constructed buildings, and that drive is especially strong in Vancouver, where the city plans to transition to zero emissions buildings in all new construction by 2030. To achieve this, the city is setting limits on emissions and energy use in new buildings, which are expected to reduce over time. A relatively new concept, net-zero homes and buildings produce as much clean energy as they consume. The Canadian Home Builders Association estimates they are up to 80 per cent more energy-efficient than typical new homes.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, the city recently instituted its TransformTO initiative, which includes a net-zero existing building strategy, a net-zero carbon plan to reduce emissions in city-owned buildings and a larger strategic plan to achieve net-zero emissions in all new developments by 2030.

Still, more must be done across the provinces, and British Columbia is making headway with its ongoing Energy Step Code implementation. The BC Energy Step Code is an optional compliance path in the BC Building Code that local governments may use to incentivize or require a level of energy efficiency in new construction that goes beyond the requirements of the BC Building Code. Effective and a powerful tool in our bid to reach net-zero emissions, the Energy Step Code, however, is only one piece of the sustainability puzzle, as it solely explores the operational impact of a construction project and does not factor in the second piece of the puzzle: building materials.

To address these lingering issues, it is clear that a path toward net-zero construction, similar to what is being done in B.C., is paramount. Local governments and developers must be empowered to seek change, and we must be further educating homebuyers as well. We are up against a challenge as we are facing a huge labour crunch, and expertise around step code is limited. But we can get there. This is not a transition that will take place overnight, but the environmental and economic value to Canada, once completed, will be immense.

Sustainable materials and their importance

While sustainable concrete is a popular trend, the development of sustainable mass timber – from harvesting to manufacturing and construction – has proven to be one of the optimal methods in building environmentally sound homes and buildings. Currently popular in major cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, as well as throughout Europe, Canada as a whole is only scratching the surface of the value of sustainable mass timber. Still, it will assuredly prove essential in the future development of sustainable projects.

Equally as important as prioritizing sustainable operations, your building materials directly impact your ability to build environmentally aware projects as well. One must consider how the material is sequestering carbon and the impact of the harvesting process. Without considering the impact of your materials, you are only addressing one part of the equation.

At Adera Development, we’ve completed three buildings built with sustainable mass timber in British Columbia since 2017, with four more projects expected to be completed in the coming years. However, there is still significant work to be done. Sustainable practices such as sustainable mass timber are increasing in popularity in places like Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia as manufacturers and suppliers exist in these provinces. However, the cost of transportation to other provinces can be a deterrent and must be addressed to encourage the use of sustainable mass timber.

At a time when Canada’s economy is looking to rebuild, the path toward sustainability has the potential to open new markets for the development and construction industries with new jobs, products, and endless opportunities for innovation and growth. This, coupled with the adoption of sustainable materials, has me optimistic about the future of Canada’s construction industry and its ability to prioritize and achieve environmentally sound standards. However, one thing remains clear: your operations and material choices go hand-in-hand.

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