Ask the Expert: Michele Friesen, LEED AP BD+C and Sustainable Design Specialist, aodbt architecture + interior design

Michele Friesen is an accomplished design specialist with aodbt architecture + interior design, who in her short career has worked on a number of very interesting green building projects. We spoke with her about working on Saskatchewan's first LEED school, and why finding a mentor as a young professional is an important step in your career.

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

MIchele Friesen. Design Specialist, aodbt architecture + interior design

With Bachelor of Arts in Regional and Urban Planning and Economics, I spent a lot of my undergraduate degree studying sustainability initiatives, with a focus on evaluating the economic, environmental and social impacts of human behaviour. After graduation, I pursued research with the University of Saskatchewan, where I worked with a team collecting and analyzing data relating to Saskatoon's public space and urban form. I became very interested in the built environment, and started my career as the only Planner at Saskatchewan's largest architectural firm.

With a background in sustainability, I naturally became interested in being involved in the LEED program and the firm's sustainable design department. I began working closely with designers and clients to develop strategies to achieve sustainability goals, with a specific focus to push the Saskatchewan marketplace. I have worked with local contractors to research and develop strategies to implement sustainable construction methods in Saskatchewan, with a keen focus to remain efficient and effective. I have had the opportunity to guide variety of clients in moving toward sustainable design for educational, institutional, commercial and residential buildings. Over the past five years, I have had the opportunity to work on over twenty projects targeting LEED Certification in Saskatchewan.

2. Your firm worked on the first LEED Silver certified school in Saskatchewan. What unique challenges are there when approaching the design of a green school?

As the first school designed to achieve LEED Silver Certification in Saskatchewan, there were a number of challenges that arose during the design and construction of École St. Anne in Prince Albert. Not only was our team new to applying the LEED rating system to education projects, but the Saskatchewan market was new to LEED in a general sense. The first challenge was to educate the owner team, design team, engineers and contractors on not only the requirements of the LEED rating system, but on the significant benefits the School would experience once completed.

École St. Anne in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, LEED Silver

A significant amount of consultation resulted in a community, student body and project team that was actively engaged, quickly becoming champions of the green building initiative. This led the school division to incorporate green building into the school's curriculum, with students guiding the green education program.

As an elementary school and daycare, our main focus became the quality of the indoor environment for the children occupying the building. With limited products available in our marketplace, the design of École St. Anne pushed suppliers to offer sustainable products that were not readily available in Saskatchewan at the time. From this, our specification department was challenged to specify sustainable products (paints, coatings, flooring etc.) on all future projects.

While finding appropriate products was challenging, the major challenge came with construction. The team worked closely with the contractor to move the construction process away from the conventional approach. Our sustainable design team had a strong presence on site; we worked to source recycling facilities in the area, helped develop programs and policies, and reviewed shop drawings to ensure the sustainability goals were met throughout the entire project scope. This collaborative effort resulted in a successful completion of the project, acting as a guide for future Saskatchewan education projects.

3. Are there any other sustainable projects that you've been involved in that stand out in your mind and why?

Saskatoon Police Service Headquarters, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

aodbt recently completed Saskatoon's new Police Service Headquarters, which is currently being reviewed by the CaGBC. This project was delivered through a Design-Build model, which brought opportunities to work alongside the owner and contractor to develop and implement sustainable design strategies. As a feature project and landmark for the City of Saskatoon, the 35,000m2 facility had a City mandate to achieve LEED Certification. With clearly defined objectives for the building's efficiency, materials, resources, and construction process, it was refreshing to be part of a team that was fully engaged and committed to achieving the set goals.

The complex program, security requirements, and significant number of occupants made this project interesting and challenging. With unique features such as aggressive water savings techniques, a cultural room for First Nations smudging ceremonies and a state of the art indoor firing range, this building acts as a demonstration project for modern police facilities across Canada.

4. As a young professional in the green building field, what advice would you give to someone considering a career in sustainability, particularly in design?

It is important for young professionals to find a mentor in the field who has both the necessary experience and vision to guide the next generation. While education sets a strong foundation, working alongside experienced professionals is critical to understanding the design industry. Implementing sustainable design takes collaboration, guidance and direction – not every strategy is applicable for every project. While young professionals bring new ideas and a fresh perspective, it is important to take the time to develop a strong understanding of the industry. If you don't understand your client group, your municipality or why decisions have been made in the past, there is little opportunity to promote change. With proper guidance and mentorship, young professionals will be equipped to successfully implement creative design approaches that move us closer to a sustainable built environment.

5. You're also better versed in rural/smaller city projects. How does the approach to these differ from those of large urban areas and/or What are the challenges?

There are significant challenges that come with projects located in smaller cities and rural communities. Communities with less than 10,000 people simply do not have the density to support amenities and services that are offered in larger cities across Canada. The population cannot support the development of high rise structures, public transportation, or active transportation networks. Rural communities in Saskatchewan are often remote, and require a vehicle to access basic services in the surrounding area. When considering applying the LEED program to rural communities, it is quickly apparent that these projects are at a geographical disadvantage. Rural projects are not able to achieve any public transportation or density credits, ruling out nearly half of the sites credits in LEED 2009.

Urban projects have access to materials and resources that are readily accessible, or can be shipped via rail efficiently. Rural projects are challenged to find local materials, with most products coming from outside of the regional materials radius. While shipping by rail is encouraged, it is not always feasible due to remote locations. Local recycling facilities are sparse, and often do not meet end-use requirements. These factors make the construction process more challenging, often affecting a project's timelines. Rural projects are also usually faced with budget limitations, which means third party measurement and verification, certified wood, and green power credits are not always attainable. While LEED projects are moving the market forward in rural communities, there are still a number of challenges to overcome. For this reason, rural projects require a tailored approach to sustainable design – viewing the process through a holistic lens is critical to ensuring success at the community level.

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

I hope to see green building initiatives that further incorporate the human experience. I see a number of initiatives taking place that foster the social aspects of sustainability, and hope that this continues in the future. By placing emphasis on sustainable communities, we can work to enhance our connections to the natural environment and to one another. I see the future bringing a shift from a micro approach to sustainable design at the building level to adopting a broader perspective. By adopting a macro approach, the goal is to shape an inclusive, sustainable built environment for communities to thrive.