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Transition to low-carbon economy 'a key priority' for EllisDon

Construction firm behind Rogers Centre discusses its steps to decarbonize on-site work ... and beyond

Jolene McLaughlin, vice-president of EllisDon’s sustainable building solutions. (Courtesy EllisDon)

EllisDon’s road to helping decarbonize the construction industry involves reducing pollution on construction sites, using sustainability software and embracing greener planning, according to one of its sustainable buildings executives.

The Mississauga, Ont.-headquartered construction firm looks at greenhouse gas emissions as the biggest piece of its environmental stewardship strategy, encompassing “operational energy of the buildings that we construct at the end, the materials that we procure that build those buildings, and our direct influence in the process that happens on site,” according to Jolene McLaughlin, vice-president of EllisDon’s sustainable building solutions.

In an interview with Sustainable Biz Canada, she spoke about how EllisDon aspires to meet its 2030 and 2050 climate goals verified by the Science Based Targets initiative. By 2030, its goal is to cut absolute greenhouse gas emissions by 42 per cent, and be net-zero by 2050 or earlier.

From the physical solutions such as employing cement that cuts greenhouse gas emissions, to the use of digital products like building management systems, the company is working to address the hard and soft aspects of on-site construction.

“When we look at EllisDon’s business, we provide service for the whole life cycle of a building . . . we identify it as a key priority for us to take our leadership position and support developing ways we can transition toward a low-carbon economy,” McLaughlin said.

Creating a climate-first planning mentality

Key to its climate targets is reducing greenhouse gas emissions produced on-site during construction by addressing the materials EllisDon chooses, how its waste is managed and reused, and treatment for the environment and communities, McLaughlin said.

Before EllisDon starts construction, it works with its partners and clients to understand everyone’s objectives, which guides the capital process to influence the long-term emissions of a building.

Carbon has to be a performance metric in an evaluation process, prioritized on par with cost and scheduling, she continued.

“Can we also bring carbon into that equation and start to make a decision that meets somewhere in the middle for all three of those things?” the company tries to ask during the project planning phase, according to McLaughlin.

EllisDon requests emissions intensity for the products it uses, such as embodied carbon evaluations when bidding for concrete, according to it's latest Impact Report.

Tackling on-site emissions

In EllisDon’s 2023 Impact Report, embodied carbon is noted as one of its top sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

Cement and concrete, two foundational materials for the construction industry, are being addressed by searching for lower-carbon alternatives. It is not an easy task to replace concrete, a material that has been largely unchanged for hundreds of years, according to McLaughlin.

“The cement and concrete industry has been working really hard to find ways to get functionally less cement into the concrete mix while still performing at the same level,” she explained. Solutions include using limestone, which makes a 10 per cent cut in greenhouse gas emissions, or supplementary cementitious materials.

In another example, EllisDon is conducting research on hybrid timber panels – mass timber fortified with steel and concrete – for use in taller buildings as a sustainable building material.

On the operations side, where EllisDon has the most control, the company is using digital twin software like EKO, which employs data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence to boost energy efficiency, and handle planning, tracking and reporting on decarbonization.

Substitutes for diesel-consuming generators are being found by using energy sources like biofuels or batteries and solar power as a back-up.

In the Impact Report, EllisDon also states policies or plans for steps such as:

  • anti- or zero-idling for vehicles and equipment;
  • advocating for low-carbon grid connections to construction sites;
  • a green transition strategy for corporate vehicles;
  • exploring renewable energy generation and energy storage on-site; and
  • electrifying its vehicle fleet, on-site operations and equipment.

EllisDon’s work in action

To demonstrate EllisDon’s progress, McLaughlin highlighted the company’s efforts at the Cowichan District Hospital in Duncan, B.C. that will be Canada’s first all-electric hospital.

Located on Vancouver Island, EllisDon performed significant work to reduce embodied carbon by working with concrete suppliers to lower the volume of cement in the concrete mix, as well as using low-emissions insulation. An approximate 15 per cent reduction in embodied carbon was achieved at the Cowichan hospital.

For greenhouse gas emissions, the project's goal is for an 82 per cent reduction from the existing facility. The company is on track to exceed this, McLaughlin said.

As EllisDon is still in the early stages of its formal sustainability strategy, McLaughlin said the company is looking to keep tracking its metrics on sustainability.

She noted its greenhouse gas emissions per revenue intensity rose six per cent from 2021 to 2022 due to an increase in business activity.

Changing the construction mindset

Though sustainable construction can cost more upfront, according to McLaughlin, it is crucial to consider the life-cycle analysis. Factors such as carbon pricing or how pension funds weigh investments based on climate friendliness make decarbonization important.

EllisDon’s maintenance team engages with its construction side to consider those life-cycle analyses and get customer feedback on cost implications.

Another mindset that needs to change is how compartmentalized the construction industry is, she said.

“The industry has traditionally been very siloed,” where the design community will go off and work on their own, sometimes in collaboration with others or separately.

Instead, “We can create a lot more effective and efficient phases and do more with less carbon if we’re all talking together at the same time,” she said.

McLaughlin urges the industry to seek more engagement during the pre-construction phase about topics such as reducing carbon emissions from materials or during construction.

Editor's note: EllisDon has clarified the embodied carbon reduction at Cowichan District Hospital is a 15 per cent reduction, not 20 per cent.

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