Green Building Conference Photo: Roozbeh Rokni/Flickr

Canada’s annual conference on green building design touched down in Toronto Thursday. Speakers included Gord Miller, the environmental commissioner of Ontario, Paul Dowsett of Sustainable.TO and Nico Tillie, a landscape architect researcher and the European Union Liaison for the City of Rotterdam.

Here’s what we learned:

1. We are already seeing the impact of climate change on building and it’s expensive:

“The [Toronto] GO train needs water wings, I understand,” said James Voogt, a geography professor at Western University. Canada is already seeing an increase in the frequency and intensity of events like flash flooding and heat waves, said Voogt, and it’s in large part due to climate change.

As northern North America sees more precipitation, in particular, any changes builders make to the land surface will affect the balance of where that water goes, Voogt added.

“It becomes a big infrastructure problem. It becomes a big risk,” he said.

Indeed, there has been a very clear uptick in the number of climate-related events causing catastrophic property and infrastructure losses worldwide over the past several decades (a 20-fold increase since the 1960s), and that impact has not skipped over Canada, said Glenn McGillivray, the managing director of Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.

Flooding has surpassed fire as the most common insurance peril in Canada (about 40 per cent of events listed on Ottawa’s Canadian Disaster Database are flood-related), McGillivray added, and billion-dollar insurance years are becoming more common.

“Prior to 2009, we had two instances where insurers in Canada had to pay $1 billion a year because of [catastrophic] losses (the Quebec ice storm in 1998 and the 2005 Toronto rainstorm), but those were deemed statistical outliers,” McGillivray said.

But last year, with the flooding in southern Alberta and Toronto’s summer flooding and winter ice storm, 2013 rang in as the fifth consecutive year of billion-dollar-plus events for the Canadian property casualty industry, according to McGillivray.

“Billion-dollar-plus losses that used to be rare are no longer rare,” he said.

2. Cities impact climate change, too:

“What do cities have to do with climate change? The answer is a whole lot,” Voogt said.

The majority of greenhouse gas emissions, he says, are driven by either urban energy use or by activities occurring in cities.

The International Panel on Climate Change warned in its last report that building high-carbon energy infrastructure developments will lock societies into high emissions that will be “difficult or very costly to change.”

Last month, world and business leaders met at the United Nations in New York City to address climate change and reducing carbon emissions, and many of them — including China and Dow Chemical but not the United States — signed on to a declaration calling for a global price on carbon.

“Cities become important in terms of the conversation about climate change going forward because we are responsible for so many of these emissions,” Voogt said.

5855551044_61a3bba7fe_b Photo: wyliepoon/Flickr

3. Biodiversity on site is important:

“Oh my god, we got a brown snake. Everyone can stay.”

That’s what Sudhir Suri’s team at L’OEUF Architects said when they found a nearly-threatened brown garden snake on site during a species inventory of their Petite Riviere golf course project in Montreal.

The point, says Suri, is when constructing a site, it’s very important that developers and designers to take into account the species already there and what they need to survive by, for example, building ground corridors so creatures can freely move from A to B on the development.

“You need to know what’s living there now,” he said.

Last week, the World Wildlife Fund released a study that estimates the total number of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish has declined by 52 per cent since 1970.

During L’OEUF’s golf course project, the life they found on site included 132 species of indigenous plants and trees, 35 species of birds and mammals, a couple of reptiles — and an amphibian.

“That should tell you something right away — one amphibian,” Suri said.

4. Building resilient infrastructure requires changes to public policy:

The Canadian Infrastructure Report Card will be asking municipalities for the first time what their current policies around adaptation to climate change are and what infrastructure groups they plan to apply that policy towards when they send out their annual survey in the coming months.

“I bet the answer will be ‘none at all’ for most of them, but it shows municipalities that it’s something they need to be thinking about,” said Nick Larson, an infrastructure planner and the general manager of BluePlan Engineering.

To get municipalities on board, however, Larson said it will take changes to public policy. “The way we decide to build our infrastructure…is completely important to how that infrastructure gets built,” he said.

Some cities have already begun the process: The City of Barrie, Ontario is the first municipality in the country that has put a fudge-factor in their seismic stormwater infrastructure costs to account for climate change. Fredericton requires that life-cycle cost assessments first be done for any piece of infrastructure before it’s approved.

5. The Dutch are way ahead of us:

  • Instead of tearing down old houses and building new, the Dutch figured out how to make existing high-energy row houses energy neutral by adding a new “skin.” This includes: adding new insulation to make the house airtight; adding triple glazed windows; using ground source heat pumps; and adding solar roofs.
  • They’ve calculated how buildings can exchange energy waste with each other: one square metre of supermarket, for example, produces enough waste energy to heat seven square metres of apartment.
  • Instead of relying on outside energy systems like electricity and natural gas, the Dutch mapped on-site energy flows — from sun, wind, waste, factory heat waste, biomass from chicken farms, park maintenance and nature, soil heat exchanges, aquifers, and geothermal — to reduce energy use by 80 per cent in some areas. “We end up with a whole stack of information that in itself is not rocket science, but it never had been shown to planners. And if planners don’t have this information, it’s not used,” said Nico Tillie, a researcher on urban landscape architecture from the Netherlands and the festival’s keynote speaker.

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