Simon Fraser University

20 October 2011 – After two weeks in Canada in late September and early October 2011, during which time a small delegation from Australia saw countless green buildings, precincts and communities, collaborated with more than 50 of the 89 green building councils from around the world and connected with some of the 20,000 plus people at Greenbuild, I’ve returned with one message: we are more than the sum of our individual parts.

Over the two weeks we were away, we listened to the stories of hundreds of people connected in some way with green building – from designers and dreamers to activists and educators. From radical environmentalists who were passionate about the role buildings could play in saving the planet, to conservatives who didn’t believe in climate change, but saw that green buildings made good fiscal sense and saved your tax dollars and mine.

Some of the buildings we visited included the green-rated Whistler Public Library, which incorporates passive solar design principles, a geothermal heating and cooling system, high efficiency baseboard heaters, and a green roof made from local, sustainable wood.

Net zero energy

The Harmony House EQuilibrium Project located in Burnaby, British Columbia, is a net zero energy house which aims to achieve LEED for Homes Platinum. The project incorporates a wide range of green features such as low-toxicity interior finishes, materials with recycled content, foam insulation using non-ozone depleting expanding agents and rain water harvesting.

It will be the first building in British Columbia to emit no greenhouse gases from heating, cooling, hot water and the use of electrical appliances. It was plainly obvious to all those on the site visit that the “best energy you can conserve is the energy you don’t use.”

High density that works
We also visited Simon Fraser University, which wraps around Burnaby Mountain. The university opened up part of its land assets to high-density development in the 1990s, with the result being a model sustainable community.

SFU has defined sustainability with “four Es”: environment, equity, economy and education. This includes developing Canada’s most stringent storm water requirements, as well the nation’s first comprehensive building guidelines. In terms of equity, a third of housing is social housing. And a preferential leasing program gives local businesses the chance to thrive.

Learning from the successes and failures of others is invaluable, and in Australia we often look to North America to determine how best to approach our next projects. The US Green Building Council’s annual conference, Greenbuild, is the pre-eminent international platform for information sharing, with around 20,000 people gathering in Toronto for all things related to green buildings and communities.

There are many opportunities for us to learn from the team working on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED rating system. The LEED Neighbourhood Design rating tool provides one of the few global case studies of how a rating tool can be used at a neighbourhood, precinct and community scale – invaluable for our work on the Green Star – Communities project.

LEED for building operation
Similarly, the USGBC’s rating tool for Existing Buildings Operations and Maintenance, LEED-EBOM, has driven more certifications in one year than all the other LEED tools have done in their entire history. We hope Green Star – Performance has the same impact in Australia, and we were able to meet with the LEED-EBOM team to see how they’ve overcome some of the challenges faced by both our nations, such as split incentives between owners and occupiers.

I also spoke at event hosted by Greening Greater Toronto, which has developed a program called “Race to Reduce”. The friendly challenge encourages landlords and tenants to work together to reduce their buildings’ energy use.

Launched in May, the program has already signed up 80 buildings. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by a collective 10 per cent.  If realised, this will mean $18 million saved in energy costs, and the CO2 savings are the equivalent of removing 20,000 cars from the roads.

WorldGBC

While in Toronto, we also attended the annual World Green Building Council Congress.  The WorldGBC now has a membership of nearly 90 green building councils from around the world. Together, this growing network is in the business of changing the world – but we cannot achieve this alone.

Coming together to share challenges and successes is an invaluable experience – and one that will enable our GBC in Australia to grow in strength. By collaborating with the WorldGBC, one plus one does truly equal three; approaching issues from an international perspective, not just an Australian view, can help create solutions that are both replicable and adaptable.

One of the speakers at Greenbuild, Frans Johansson, founder and former chief executive officer of an enterprise software company, spoke about the “Medici Effect”. This is the phenomenon of innovation occurring when people see beyond their expertise and approach situations with fresh eyes.

Much as the Medici family of Renaissance Italy’s patronage helped develop European arts and culture, we are now at the cusp of a new era of enlightenment – a green building enlightenment. Just one example is Biomimicry, which rests at the intersection of biology and engineering. Many more exciting new innovations and approaches await us at the intersections between different professions and experiences.

Greenbuild’s take home message for Australia? We can find inspiration outside our own fields and expertise – and dare to explore the connections.

By Romilly Madew is chief executive,  Green Building Council of Australia