Ask the Expert: Architect Joël Courchesne

Joel CorchesneJoël Courchesne, LEED AP BD+C and O+M, is no stranger to green building, having begun his career in the early 1990s by freelancing in Toronto, where he developed an interest in European products and projects. At that time, it was the simplicity and efficiency of their building and design that attracted him to sustainability, along with the types of products they were using, including more energy efficient or bio-based/durable materials, many of which were not yet available in North America.

We spoke to Jol about how this led to his burgeoning career in green architecture, how it has all evolved over the past two decades, and what advice he has for those new to the industry

1. You had just started your career and noticed that there was a lack of sustainable products and materials in North America. What did you do to change that?

I kept talking about it with my partner and eventually I got to work with firms that found these ideas worth putting in action. I did my first true sustainable project with Tye Farrow (now Farrow) of Dunlop Farrow (now Stantec) the project was a small convention centre so the bioclimatic aspect was first on our list. It was naturally ventilated (no air conditioning) and built with an optimized steel structure that would allow cross ventilation to evacuate heat and allow maximum indirect lighting. From there I went on to work with HOK Canada where sustainable design was the reference for all the projects I worked on, and now I’m back freelancing as a consultant and working with anyone who wants to do sustainable design.

2. You've worked in environmental consulting and green building for over a decade. Of all that time – what projects stick out most in your mind?

The early ones are always close to our heart, but I have to admit that the one that allowed me to learn the most is the project I am currently working on, which is the CHUM Hospital project in Montreal. Not so much for its sustainable aspects (right now it’s aiming for LEED Silver with 36 points- LEEDv1.0 with addenda), but for what makes it tick. I’ve been involved in many projects where the client and the design team are aiming for that same goal of sustainability, but this one, because of its complexity (750 beds in the hospital, plus all associated departments) has helped me see what is really needed to achieve sustainability in a project – no matter the size or type.

For example, the research required to find the proper products to apply in a hospital setting is not so much a LEED objective, but one of logical outcome. A hospital exists to heal people, so the building cannot be creating a negative or unhealthy environment. The coordination of all of the consultants and sub-trades for this project, no matter how much LEED knowledge we collectively have, is a challenge in itself. Thankfully, despite it being challenging, because of the type of project it is and what it serves for the greater community, most of the professionals involved are rallying to meet the LEED objectives and this enthusiasm has become contagious.

3. What have you learned most working on LEED projects? Any advice you would convey to other project teams/designers?

The design/construction team has to be knowledgeable and willing to achieve the set objectives. In public projects where the lowest bidder gets the project, you will always find some consultant who went too low and didn’t take into consideration special costs. It is at this point that you have to decide if you really want the project to become a success. If so, you will embark on a voyage of teaching and fully sharing your knowledge with anyone who makes up a part of the team.

Also, keeping a positive and even funny attitude will go a long way in bringing everyone on board. And PLEASE don’t go with the “I’m the boss” attitude. Dumping responsibility on others will never help the project.

4. You were very involved in the CaGBC early on, and you still sit on the LEED TAG. How have you seen CaGBC and green building evolve throughout this time?

CaGBC and green building have become a reference and source of information in Canada and internationally, and the CaGBC is now well represented by the USGBC. This is a sign of maturity that is owed to the great work done by the employees and the many volunteers who devote their time and effort to improving the knowledge base. Being part of the CaGBC and USGBC has allowed me to expand my knowledge of what sustainable design is and should be.

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

I truly believe that sustainable design in architecture will become the baseline reference point for all projects as knowledge improves. Looking at the European market, I can see that we’ve acquired a knowledge of our own and have used that to build truly special projects. For example, a Living Building Challenge project like the Bullitt Center in Seattle shows us that larger projects can achieve LBC status and do it well.

But don’t be mistaken – we still have some work to do before we can say that all projects/buildings are sustainable. I’m based in Montreal, and the simple fact that our climate is not an easy one to work with proves that the most effective solution to green building in Canada will be one that is adapted to our own specific locations and climates. As designers, builders, owners and others, it is important that we select the projects that best meet our expertise, and make sure we have the right clients mixed with the right teams. If we do this, one by one we will be able to ensure that all of Canada’s buildings, and consequently cities, are sustainable