Real estate: Building the future

Picture a building with walls made of worn-out blue jeans, or an office tower that purifies the rainwater that falls on it. Neither of these concepts are especially far-fetched, according to presenters at the first-ever Toronto Regional Green Building Festival, held Oct. 25-26 at Toronto's National Trade Centre–after all, buildings that “breathe” already exist, such as the London headquarters of Swiss Re, a building whose heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system sucks cool air in at its bottom and expels “used” air out the top. And with fuel prices up, it's a good time to talk about energy-saving buildings.

The event, which attracted 368 developers, architects, planners, engineers and construction professionals, was presented by the Green Building Alliance, a collaboration of Sustainable Buildings Canada and the Canada Green Building Council with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority and the Canadian Urban Institute. The Alliance encourages building projects that incorporate renewable energy and materials while producing no pollutants. Among other tenets: a building's indoor environment should be healthy for its inhabitants, and the structure should have minimum ecological impact.

Some green techniques are ancient and basic–such as using sunlight to light buildings and harnessing the wind as a source of power, ventilation and cooling. Others have only recently become possible. For example, says Doug Webber, project manager at Halsall Associates Ltd., “in the last number of years, particularly with improvements in digital design tools, we've developed the ability to test the impact of design decisions before they are built,” such as tools that predict energy consumption.

Speakers speculated whether Canadian buildings could become “restorative”: capable of undoing damage caused by development. Greg Allen, president of Sustainable Edge Ltd., talked of construction materials derived from garbage: “We may end up with buildings as the new landfill.”

Green retrofitting of existing buildings is already proven to reduce long-term costs. Nestor Uhera, senior energy consultant with the City of Toronto's Better Buildings Partnership (which advises institutions on energy efficiency), cited a recent upgrade of HVAC and lighting systems at CBC headquarters. Costs ran a little over $630,000, while annual savings are estimated at almost $260,000. And a report presented at the festival, called Green Value: Green Buildings, Growing Assets, suggests green features can actually affect market value. It proposes “green value”: additional value that accrues to a green building from factors ranging from potentially higher rents to reduced tenant turnover.

David Clusiau, principal in architecture and design for NORR Ltd., described how their client SAS Institute (Canada) Inc. reaped unexpected rewards after making a new Toronto building as green as possible. Insurance rates dropped because the insurer believed the building's green equipment was of above-average quality.