Ask the Expert: Rebecca Holt, Sustainable Building Advisor and Senior Researcher, Perkins+Will

Rebecca is a Sustainable Building Advisor and Senior Researcher with Perkins+Will's research team. She consults on sustainability concepts and high performance design for buildings and communities. We spoke to her about her varied career that includes work on a variety of successful green building projects.

1. Tell us about your career and how you came to be involved in the sustainability field.

I completed an undergraduate degree in geography and sociology and started working in environmental engineering doing contaminated sites research. About two years later, I realized I was more interested in the built environment, cities, and the critical role of social systems in the evolution of communities. I began to focus my work on the buildings sector, and about the same time the LEED program came to Canada and I became very engaged in early applications of the rating system. At the same time, I took a Master's degree in Urban Studies focused on sustainable development. Urban Studies solidified my interest in the sustainability at the community scale, but I was also able to remain engaged in, and learn from exceptional and leading design projects.

2. I know you've worked on a great deal of sustainability projects in your career. Which stand out most in your mind?

The Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) at UBC stands out for several reasons. Certainly because it was an ambitious project in terms of performance and innovation but also because it demonstrates the power of leveraging the opportunities of the district-scale and taking a systems approach to design. It's also a project I have been involved in for a long period of time, through two different companies over more than 10 years. It is satisfying to have been involved over this period and to continue this engagement through research partnerships now established as part of the curriculum at CIRS.

Also, we recently completed a study of tall wood buildings around the world which aimed to gather lessons learned from successful built examples, with the goal of encouraging more construction with solid wood in North America. We traveled to visit 10 buildings and speak with more than 60 stakeholders about their experiences designing and building with solid wood. It was and exceptional opportunity that had a huge learning curve and took me out of my professional comfort zone, but has deepened my expertise, and connected me to a network of practitioners that would not have otherwise been possible. Wood can contribute considerably to reducing carbon emissions associated with the built environment (both embodied and operational), and this work has been important to demonstrate the practicalities of doing so to the North American market.

3. Why do you think that planning is so key to green building and sustainability, no matter who approaches it or on what scale?

I think planning is the moment from which to consider our work from a holistic, or whole-systems perspective – which I see as the basis for a strong collaborative process, optimizing more than just parts of a building or community, but considering the potential of a project to benefit well beyond the limit of its site. It is a process that connects and evaluates parallel priorities, and can identify important points of leverage in the spaces between traditional design disciplines.

4. In your view, what is the value of energy benchmarking? Do you think the Canadian industry has fully embraced this yet?

I think energy benchmarking is very valuable; as the saying goes, "You can't manage what you don't measure." To best answer this question, I spoke with my colleague Gerrett Lim, who is actively engaged in benchmarking our own design portfolio and a specialist in existing building performance.

Benchmarking provides owners, especially those with larger portfolios, a way to compare performance against similar buildings which helps determine if their buildings are performing the way they are intended to. It is also a mechanism for accountability for designers. Measuring performance allows designers to validate their work and improve it, which is also true for building operators. In Canada, energy benchmarking has traction with facility management companies with larger portfolios and they use it to inform capital improvement plans for the year and identify strategies for optimization.

We could benefit from better leadership from municipalities, such as in New York City, where all buildings are required to report their energy use. In fact, we can expect some significant traction when LEED Canada's MPR 6 "Must commit to sharing whole building energy and water usage data" is no longer suspended for LEED certified projects. It will be exceptionally valuable to compare certified project data against national averages, further informing and focusing our efforts.

5. Where do you see the future of green building headed in the near future and/or the more long-term future?

I hope the future of green building includes a shift in mindset from thinking of performance only within the boundaries of a building site, to a broad consideration of buildings as active parts of communities. Doing so can reveal opportunities for resource sharing a from water, energy and transportation infrastructure to community amenities and social programs; every building has the potential to contribute to a better urban fabric and stronger social connections. We are already seeing this emerge in the latest LEED rating systems where site location and neighbourhood patterns are more heavily weighted as part of the evaluation criteria for new buildings. I have hope that this approach can set an optimistic course for the future of green building.