It’s Not Easy Building Green — What Can Government Do to Help?

A Developer’s Perspective on Sustainability in an Uncertain Future

By: Louie Santaguida — original article was published on EcDevJounal.com

Toronto — June 2016 — At Rethink Sustainability Initiatives’ leadership exchange, The New Leadership Opportunity — in an Uncertain Future, held at The UofT Faculty Club, over 125 senior leaders from over 20 industries explored key challenges impacting our environment and society — and solutions that can be implemented today. To accelerate the conversation, it was ignited by a multi-disciplined group of speakers who are recognized thought leaders in their respective fields of expertise: architecture, infrastructure risk and resiliency, climate change, energy systems, communication, leadership and real estate development.

Representing the developer’s perspective on what it takes to advance the sustainability and leadership of buildings and surrounding communities, was Louie Santaguida, President of Stanton Renaissance.

The Developer’s Perspective on Sustainability in an Uncertain Future

The key to the future success of sustainable or green building in Canada, and specifically in Ontario, is engaged and consistent support from all levels of government.

Shepherding the development of a condominium from inception and architectural drawings through policy and planning committees and finally to completion and occupancy, is an arduous and detailed process. For developers looking to break new ground with emerging technologies and state-of-the art environmental innovation, the journey becomes even more complicated.

So, what can Government actually do to support and facilitate the building process and encourage more sustainable development?

Expedite the Approval Process

During the long lifespan of the development of a project, it is not unusual for government decision makers to switch files. Frequent movement of policy makers from Ministry to Ministry creates a lack of connectivity to important and emerging industry issues. This creates ongoing delays and frustration as developers must start anew to educate each consecutive round of incoming politicians.

Fluctuating political changes also trickle down to create greater staff attrition. Better training is necessary to empower all employees, but especially new ones, and ensure the understanding of the processes stays on track.

Policies also need to be more clearly written (or rewritten in some cases) and formatted to discourage misinterpretation, miscommunication and further delays. Effective and direct education and communication from government and industry partners must become a major priority.

Update Building Codes

Macro issues, such as reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), are well understood by policy makers — and the measures in place to support these are universally accepted. Unfortunately, micro issues such as sustainable and reliable energy production through technologies such as GeoExchange and Cogeneration systems, have yet to receive the same level of support. This is especially evident in the lack of current Ontario Building Code updates — and in relevant training for the updates that do make it through the system.

Ontario’s Building Code is dated and updates to account for emerging trends and technology in sustainable building are inconsistent and slow to be approved. Take for example the recent January 2015 change to the Code that now allows for wood-frame construction up to 6 storeys (raising the limit from four storeys). In British Columbia, over 50 wood-frame buildings have been built since its code was changed in 2009, a full 6 years before the Ontario update was approved.

In addition to being slow to adopt a new building option that provides a number of benefits to stakeholders ranging from builders, the Canadian forestry industry and end-users, the expectation from developers is that implementation of this update will take years and hinder builders’ efforts to comply because of a lack of understanding and training for municipal employees tasked with executing the new standards and processes.

Provide Green and Clean Retrofits

In many industries, government supports emerging and clean technology with subsidies to incentivize manufacturers who are leading by example. Once the standards are set and sustainable or green becomes more widely accepted by industry and the public on a mass level, subsidies decrease or disappear.

One example of this is Tesla Motors Inc. In the hope of promoting widespread adoption and ultimately slashing carbon emissions, many levels of government in the US support Tesla’s luxury electric car manufacturing through incentives, grants, tax breaks, discounted loans and environmental credits. In fact, all of founder Elon Musk’s “green” businesses, including Tesla, SolarCity Corp and SpaceX, have benefited from an estimated $4.9 billion in government support to date.

This example would appear to set an obvious precedent for incentives the Ontario government could follow to support the green building industry innovators and the early adopter end users in a meaningful way.

Recognize and Appreciate the Benefits of Supporting Green Building

Like modern “hybrid” autos with both conventional and electric power, Stanton Renaissance is building On The Go Mimico, the Toronto area’s first high-rise condominium project with two power sources. An integrated GeoExchange/Cogeneration system will work in synch with a conventional power system that enables the building to be on the grid when power is least expensive and off the grid at higher-priced times. The integrated system ensures uninterrupted, reliable and consistent energy which can “borrow energy from the earth in the winter and put it back in the summer,” redirecting and recycling it to where it’s needed.

This is the kind of fast-emerging technology that provides substantial environmental and financial benefits across many stakeholders. Typically, 30–40 per cent of a building’s generated heat is wasted. On The Go Mimico’s GeoExchange/CoGeneration will store energy using the ground deep below, acting much like a giant car battery to redirect heating and cooling for the building’s many systems. This translates to:

  • Better energy efficiency
  • Better for the environment by reducing GHGs, due to less reliance on traditional, more polluting energy generating options
  • Cleaner internal air quality
  • Reduced heating and cooling expenses for owners
  • Expected lower condo fees associated with fewer overall maintenance issues

As governments awaken to the importance of supporting sustainable innovation, any and all efforts to reduce or eliminate procedural delays and excessive fees should also create long term cost savings in overall green builds.

Acknowledge Consumer Demand

Today’s urban condo buyers are embracing a socially responsible, community lifestyle. At Stanton Renaissance, we frequently hear from buyers in their 30s and 40s, who currently comprise more than 50 per cent of On The Go Mimico sales, that choosing to live “cleaner” for the same investment is very important. Research supports that the ensuing generations will follow suit.

In fact, according to an October 2015 global online Nielsen study on Consumer Expectations*, despite the fact that Millenials are facing one of the most difficult economic climates in the past 100 years, they continue to be the most willing to pay extra for sustainable offerings. And in a November 2015 Neilson Generational Lifestyle Survey, 54 per cent Of Millennials want to live in a big city or urban neighbourhood.

That means that greener “communities” with complementary services such as green cleaners and grocers, high walkability scores and public transportation options are crucial now and into the future.

Politicians elected to enforce the will of their constituents will be increasingly expected to support the new technologies and innovations that will enable the lifestyles the public demands. Finding ways to adapt to new ideas and draft and enact more enlightened policies, will allow for more responsible and efficient building overall for the long term benefit of Ontarians.

However, most crucial to the future success of building in Ontario is the need to motivate government to expedite policy changes. Government must figure out how to slash through the current bureaucracy that creates unnecessarily costly development charges, fees and levies which drive up purchase prices for buyers. Until Ontario is able to implement green changes more quickly and integrate them into the market faster, developers and consumers who are trying to do the right thing for the environment will continue to pay the ultimate price.

* Neilson, October 2015. The Sustainability Imperative — New Insights on Consumer Expectations

** Neilson, November 2015. Global Generational Lifestyles — How we Live, Eat, Play, Work and Save for Our Futures

Louie Santaguida is President of Stanton Renaissance, a Toronto-based commercial development company that revives and transforms neighbourhoods with innovative, environmentally sustainable mixed-use condominium projects that preserve community heritage elements.

More speaker insights from the RSI exchange can be viewed at www.rethinksustainability.ca.