Green Building Guidelines and Initiatives - A Canadian Perspective

Gone are the days used up in favour of a disposable society, leaving what remains to provide for an explosion of civilization and that which they covet. Other complex cultures have perished throughout time from degradation to ecosystems and an inability to engineer a peaceful coexistence. So it is no wonder that today’s green/sustainable building practices have developed beyond concept into doctrine, finding their way into our hearts and politics. And while concerns about environmental degradation, resource shortages, and human health impacts are promoting widespread acceptance of green building practices, more can be done to aid the day-to-day practitioners in mitigating the enormous pressures on planetary ecosystems caused by human activities.

Towards these endeavours, the concept of resource conscious design, which ultimately aims to minimize natural resource consumption and impact on ecological systems, is presented in a familiar context. In particular, Canadian guidelines and initiatives are put forth as examples of current green building applications and their environmental benefits.

The Impact of Buildings on the Environment

Substantial energy and material resources are expended on the construction and maintenance of conventional buildings. As of 2006, buildings consumed 40% of the total energy consumed in both the US and European Union. (Wikipedia) As shown in table 1, buildings use 70% of the total electricity consumed, 12% of the total amount of potable water consumption per day, and 40% of raw material usage. Furthermore, 39% of the total carbon dioxide and 30% of waste output can be attributed to buildings. (USGBC) Moreover, buildings often result in environmental degradation such as loss of amenity and biodiversity which are much more difficult to assess. (Kibert 38) The major environmental impacts to be addresses by green building methods are covered in more detail in the following sections.

Climate Change
As a major energy consumer, an increasing reliance on fossil fuels, particularly coal - the dirtiest of all - includes the built environment as a key proponent to climate change. Furthermore, building materials and operations continue to be linked to ozone depletion, despite the United Nations Montreal Protocol of 1987 to halt production of ozone-depleting chemicals and restore the ozone layer by 2050. (Kibert 39) Even more disturbing, rampant deforestation degrades the capability of forests to sequester the large quantities of carbon dioxide stored in tree mass; instead, releasing it into the atmosphere as gaseous compounds, which further accelerate climate change.

Deforestation Desertification and Soil Erosion
With 2 acres of rainforest disappearing every second, only half the Earth’s forest cover still remains and because trees and their root systems prevent soil erosion, landslides, and avalanches, their removal contributes to soil loss (desertification) and changes the rate at which water enters the watershed. (Kibert 39) Moreover, large scale deforestation affects the albedo, or reflectivity, of the Earth, ultimately causing climate change and altering rainfall patterns and quantity worldwide.

Eutrophication and Acidification
Two environmental conditions that are a toxic threat to water supplies are eutrophication and acidification. Eutrophication refers to saturation of water bodies with agricultural and landscape fertilizer, urban runoff, and sewage discharge. An oversupply of toxins in the water fosters algae growth, which in turn block sunlight and cause underwater vegetation to die. Moreover, the algae consumes oxygen, further depleting the water body until eventually, the algae itself decomposes in a completely oxygenless lake or seabed, releasing toxic hydrogen sulphide, poisoning organism and resulting in total degradation of the aquatic system. (Kibert 41) Acidification refers to the process whereby air pollution in the form of ammonia, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, mainly released by burning fossil fuels, is converted into acids resulting in acid rain which is damaging forests, lakes, soil, and even ancient historical monuments.

Loss of Biodiversity
Biologists are predicting the loss of 20 percent of existing species over the next twenty years due to deforestation and climate change. Destruction of ecosystems contributes to the spread of infectious diseases and species extinction prevents discovery of potentially useful medicines. (Kibert 42) Furthermore, ecosystems foster water and soil resources; nutrient storage and cycling; pollution breakdown and absorption; provide food and materials; in addition to many other undiscovered applications.

Depletion of Metal Stocks
Like oil depletion, a similar scenario is playing out with other key resources, most notably metals. A recent study of the supply and usage of copper, zinc, and other metals has concluded that supplies of these resources may fail to meet the needs of the global demands, even if recycled. Furthermore, because the rate of use of metals continues to rise, even more plentiful metals, may face similar depletion in the near future. (Kibert 44)

A Rational for Green Building

Although the deep green movement would return us to a pre-industrialized world, functioning as an organic agrarian society, more pragmatic green building ideologies extend from the industrialized foundations of a post-industrial world. (Ferrera and Visser 14) Today’s green builder balances the needs to reduce cost and improve the quality of living for occupants with an ethical and practical response to issues of environmental impact and resource consumption. (Kibert 5)

Green building virtually always makes sense on a life-cycle cost basis. Significant savings and improved product unity of the building occupants can be realized for the life of the building, lowering the total cost of ownership. (Kibert 5) Furthermore, as energy and water prices continue to rise in response to growing demand, payback periods will decrease. Conventional construction methods usually pay little attention to the potential affects on occupants such as sick building syndrome (SBS), building-related illness (BRI), or multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). (Kibert 5) In contrast, green buildings are designed to promote occupant health and well being by utilizing such measures as zero volatile organic materials, ultraviolet radiation in ventilation systems, as well as careful selection and installation of ductwork and piping.

Green building serves to protect and foster the natural environment through integration of native and adapted species in landscaping, while encouraging the use of renewable resources; recycling and reuse of water and materials; passive energy systems; and other approaches that minimize environmental impact and resource consumption. (Yudeison 13)

A Resource-Conscious Design
Green building employs a resource conscious design, which aims to minimize natural resource consumption and impact on ecological systems. From resource extraction through disposal at the end of the materials useful life, green building practices account for the entire building life cycle, its constituent components, and how they impact the environment. (Kibert 5)

Land Resources
Land, particularly undeveloped, is a finite resource, and its development should be minimized. Former industrial zones (brownfields) and blighted urban areas (grayfields) should be recycled back to productive use, precluding further development while promoting economic and social revitalization in distressed urban areas. (Kibert 7)

For instance, in 1997, the Cirque du Soleil endeavoured to revitalize a proposed dumping site on the periphery of Montréal. Since then, other groups have joined in establishing the Cité des arts du cirque, a community for producing and promoting the circus arts. (Ferrera and Visser 74) Site conservation measures includes a non excavated basement and a minimal removal of excavated material. Moreover, through an agreement with the local company Gazmont, biogas Gas from an excavation site at the Saint Michelle environmental Complex is converted into energy used in the Cirque du Soleil’s heating systems.

Energy and Atmosphere
Because energy sources such as coal or oil cause a significant portion of air pollution and climate change, (Haselbach 119) energy conservation is best addressed through affective building design, which integrates three general approaches: designing a building envelope that is highly resistant to heat transfer; using renewable energy; and implementing passive design which employs the buildings geometry, orientation, and mass to condition the structure using natural features such as the sites solar insulation, thermal chimney effects, prevailing winds, local topography, microclimate, and landscaping.

For example, Montreal’s Mountain Equipment Co-Op Store incorporates solar and geothermal energy radiant heating/cooling, a natural ventilation and uses at least 65% less energy than a similar reference building. Building system controls retrieve weather forecasts via the Internet and are able to accordingly adjust the thermal mass of the structure. (Ferrera and Visser 68) Window sizing and location was determined using computer simulations to optimize natural lighting and control thermal heat gain.

Water Resources
Since only a small portion of the earth’s hydrological cycle yields potable water, protection of existing ground and surface water supplies is increasingly critical. Water conservation techniques include the use of low flow plumbing fixtures, water recycling, rainwater harvesting, xeriscaping, a landscaping method that utilizes drought-resistant plants and resource-conscious techniques. Innovative approaches to wastewater processing and storm water management should address the full scope of a building hydrologic cycle. (Kibert 8)

Within the framework of the L.E.E.D. Canada rating system, the Université du Québec à Montréal [UQAM] Biological Sciences Pavilion implements several water conservations strategies that reflect the university’s commitment to environmental responsibility and leadership. Rainwater is collected for use in toilets and landscaping irrigation. Waterless urinals and low flow fixtures reduce potable and wastewater volumes. Landscape vegetation includes indigenous species requiring low maintenance and no winter protection, which aid in the protection and preservation of existing natural hydrological cycles. (Ferrera and Visser 132)

Ecosystems: The Forgotten Resource
Integration of ecosystems with the built environment should play an important role in resource conscious design and supplants conventional technologies in controlling external loads, processing waste, absorbing storm water, growing food, and providing environmental amenity. (Kibert 9)Smith Carter Architects and Engineers Incorporated of Winnipeg features preservation of existing mature trees, a storm water detention pond, walking paths and restoration of native planting and local bird habitat. The site preserves 150 mature to spruce trees and restores 1.4 acres to native prairie grassland, promoting biodiversity. Air intake is on the tree side of the building, so that fresh air is scrubbed by the spruce forests before entering the building. (Ferrera and Visser 70)

Although project schedules may differ depending upon the type of project and construction process used, the stages of a project can be summarized into a few main categories: project conceptualization; schematic design; planning and zoning and other municipal planning organization reviews; detailed design development; permits; construction document development; bid and procurement; construction; close out; and operations. (Haselbach 277) The bar chart in figure below shows the project timeline of a typical green construction project. (Haselbach 281)

As show in figure, additional design and certain green features may add as much as 0.7% to 2.0% of total building cost (Swift 6), however, experienced practitioners of green design such as Victor Courte, president of Courte construction note: “the front-end costs are higher due to design and commissioning, but ultimately lead to energy efficiencies, resulting in a net savings over the life of the building. Furthermore, a recent study by The American Chemistry Council estimate of soft costs of obtaining LEED certification is 2.3 percent of total construction costs with a range of 1.5 percent to 3.1. (ACC)

As building, civil, and environmental engineers, we are taught how to create mathematical computer models that are used to judge alternatives, provide creative input, and assist with development of new techniques and solutions. (Swift 82) Building and civil engineers are invaluable in building design orientation considerations, form and dimension, and deciding which type of materials will provide the maximum quantity of solar radiation, while at the same time analyzing the heat transfer characteristics of those options. Building and civil, in conjunction with environmental engineers find ways to reduce the facilities potable water, sewer, storm water conveyance requirements, while protecting and preserving the natural environment.

Sources of Information
  • American Chemistry Council (ACC) , Analyzing the Cost of Obtaining of LEED Certification, April 16, 2003,
  • Courte, Victor. President, Courte Construction. Interview, Montreal, July, 2008.
  • Ferrera, Luigi and Visser, Emily, ed. Canada Innovates: Sustainable Building. Toronto: Key Porter Books Limited, 2008.
  • Haselbach, Liv. The Engineering Guide to LEED – New Construction. New York: McGraw – Hill,2008.
  • Kibert, Charles, J. Sustainable Construction. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2008.
  • Swift, John, M. et al. EASHRAE Green Guide. Atlanta: Elsevier, 2006.
  • US Green Building Council (USGBC). Green Building Research, July, 2008, n.p.,
  • Wikipedia. Green Building. July, 2008, n.p.,
  • Yudeison, Jerry. The Green Building Revolution. Washington: Island Press, 2007.


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