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November 4, 2019 - 4 min

Reducing Our Environmental Impact by Improving the Performance of Buildings

Published by Pierre-André Lebeuf

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), buildings account for about 40% of annual energy consumption worldwide, and one third of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. 

The good news is that compared to other emitting sectors, the building and construction sectors have the greatest potential for significant reductions in emissions through low-cost actions. In a context of global warming, the energy performance of our buildings is no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

Growing Environmental Concerns

Although we do not yet fully understand the consequences of global warming, scientific evidence shows that it is a determining factor particularly in weather disturbances, rising sea levels, the disappearance of many species, and the scarcity of resources.

On October 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report on the impacts of a 1.5 °C warming above pre-industrial levels. To avoid exceeding certain limits, and thus escape the worst climate change scenarios, the IPCC emphasized the need to radically reduce our GHG emissions. “Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5 °C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban systems and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems […] global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions would decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching net zero around 2050,” reported the experts.

June 5, 2018, in Toronto, during a lecture as part of the Better Buildings Summit, David Suzuki, a well-known Geneticist and Environmental Activist, spoke at length about the impact of climate change and the urgency to take action. “When we forget that we are an integral part of nature, we also forget that what we do to our environment, we do to ourselves,” proclaimed Suzuki.

The Role of Buildings in Climate Change

With the exponential increase of new buildings as well as opportunities to improve the energy efficiency of real estate around the world, if no effective action is taken, GHG emission rates will continue to grow at an alarming rate. “[…] between 1971 and 2004, carbon dioxide emissions, including through the use of electricity in buildings, are estimated to have grown at a rate of 2.5% per year for commercial buildings and at 1.7% per year for residential buildings,” writes the UNEP in a report titled Buildings and Climate Change. It must be said that unlike certain privileged regions like Québec with its hydroelectricity, not all energy sources are renewable.

“With the increasing and rapid urbanization of the world’s most populous countries, building sustainably is now more necessary than ever,” warns UNEP. In his lecture, David Suzuki rightly emphasized the importance, which is also a challenge, of creating projects that meet the needs of nature rather than trying to force nature to adapt to human constructions, which is what we are doing now. “We need to radically change the way we see the world,” Suzuki concluded. “Let’s stop considering money as the ultimate goal and start thinking about the future of our children and grandchildren.”

Energy Efficiency

For many years now, Canada’s green building community has been thinking about ways to limit the negative impact of buildings on the environment. In 2016, the Green Building Council of Canada (CaGBC) published the article Buildings Solutions to Climate Change. “Over the years, several national and international reports have concluded that energy efficiency improvements in the building sector offer the most efficient approach to reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions, like no other sector of the economy can,” wrote President and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Mueller.

Energy efficiency is therefore at the heart of several bold approaches fostering innovation in the building and construction sectors. For example, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification is an internationally recognized brand of excellence for sustainable buildings in more than 132 countries. In Canada, it has been helping to redefine sustainable buildings since 2002. “LEED has a huge impact. When architects started to strive to design buildings that were not only LEED Bronze, but LEED Platinum, it really stimulated an interest in the field,” noted David Suzuki, adding that the goal today is zero-energy or positive-energy buildings.

“Over the past decade, green building certification programs have raised the bar when it comes to energy efficiency, renewable energy and sustainability practises, and have changed the way we design, build, maintain and operate buildings,” explains the CaGBC.

In May 2017, the Council launched the Zero Carbon Building Initiative to support Canada’s efforts in reducing GHG emissions by 2030.

Insulation as an Ally

As mentioned in our previous blog post: Insulation as an Ally of Energy Efficiency, energy efficiency is one of the most important challenges in building design and construction. And it is optimal only if we rely on quality insulation and the waterproofing of assembly systems. This approach is essential to minimize the need for heating and cooling, while ensuring ideal thermal conditions indoors—warm in the winter and cool in the summer—with maximum comfort for users. Added to this is the potential reduction in energy consumption during the use stage of the building.

The Unavoidable Environmental Component

While the thermal performance of buildings is among the priorities for both designers and homeowners, the environmental component has become a staple in all construction projects. From the design stage, the designer can determine the best ways to optimize the energy performance of a building.  

“We need to rethink the way we design and build all buildings: from the smallest structure to the largest. They must be designed for the next centuries and not for only one single generation,” said David Suzuki, challenging us to see how our activities can be part of the solution rather than continuing to be part of the problem.

As explained in our blog post Sustainable Buildings: To Better Understand Transparent Declarations, industry professionals seeking products that meet the requirements of sustainable buildings, such as LEED certification, can rely on transparent declarations, such as Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) and Health Product Declarations (HPD).

Sustainable Development: A Business Opportunity

As David Suzuki says so well, contrary to popular belief, embracing values of sustainable development and respect for the environment is a business opportunity and not an economic obstacle.

“Green buildings embody a vision of Canada’s future by providing jobs, improving GDP growth and offering a suitable solution to help meet our GHG reduction goals,” the CaGBC acknowledges. Perhaps more importantly, sustainable buildings and infrastructure create resilient cities resistant to time, climate change and economic volatility. There is no doubt that sustainable buildings, over their lifecycle, can save money while reducing our environmental footprint.