What does your building say about your company?

Sustainable architecture and design is being pushed by government standards and corporate reputation.

 
 Toronto’s Corus Quay Building, completed in 2010 (Photo: WaterfrontToronto.ca) 

In the first week of October, Toronto hosted GreenBuild, the world’s largest green building conference and expo. Thousands of building professionals from around the world attended and from small entrepreneurs to giants like Home Depot, GE and Philips. Products on display were wide-ranging, including lighting, paints, landscaping and much more, all playing the sustainability or “green” card.

To help me navigate the show a bit better, I met up with Mike Szabo, a principal at Toronto’s award-winning Diamond and Schmitt Architects. Most recently, the firm’s received acclaim for its work on the Evergreen Brickworks and Corus Quay building in Toronto, as well as the Montreal Concert Hall, among others. We talked about the challenges of sustainable design and where the industry is headed.

How difficult is it to sell the idea of sustainability to clients, particularly on the corporate and commercial side?

Mike Szabo: In the commercial context, there are two types of clients. First are the ones who are long-term owners and operators of the facilities. There you’ve got a stronger likelihood of making a compelling argument about building smartly, durably and sustainably. You’d be surprised how many buildings are built that are not easy to fix, so if something goes wrong, you’ve got a really big mess. Look at the condos in Toronto with faulty glass, they have really short-term life spans. Where it all gets tricky is when the energy costs are off-loaded from the building owners to clients or tenants. They care less about buying a cheaper energy-hogging boiler because their tenants are paying the bills.

But the market is changing. I had an interesting talk with a developer recently who is a very traditional developer, in it to maximize profit, suspicious of any newfangled ideas, wants to do it the way they always have. Their client is a large, substantial multi-national accounting firm, big enough to have some leverage in the conversation, and they’re saying that the building itself reflects on the company. They want to attract the best and brightest employees, and the best and the brightest are smart people who care about the environment and don’t want to be in an energy-hog, retrograde building. It’s amazing—here are the architects and the end client pushing the developer along to change their ways. A smart developer will leverage that and show themselves as leaders in this way of thinking.

The worst-case scenario is when you have a hard-nosed developer and an absent owner/operator, just someone who’s going to flip the property. That’s a race to the bottom and it’s really, really difficult.

Is that more common than the best-case scenario?

Yes, but come January there’s a new energy code in the Ontario building code, which will be the most aggressive in Canada. Even ahead of Vancouver, which had been the strictest, in terms of energy efficiency and the minimums that need to be met. I think the government is getting its head around why it needs to be the leader in these things and enforce it. They set the lowest common denominator and as those ratings and standards move up, it’s going to push the leaders further ahead and pull the laggards along with them.

So is progress simply based on who’s got the strictest government standards?

No, I think it’s cultural as well. The mayor of Calgary has talked a lot about how cities are increasingly becoming global commodities. If you look at Seattle, it was one of the first municipalities to say every new municipal building will be LEED certified. They understood that the city is an entity that will attract companies to the city because of the quality of life we put forward. And that involves the broadest concept of sustainability, that because we’re more urbanized than ever, it’s about making livable cities. Cities are increasingly aware that they’re competing globally in concepts like livability, and sustainability is part of that package deal.

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