Ask the Expert: Sébastien Garon of Sébastien Garon Architecture + Design

Sébastien Garon, Architect AIBC, Senior LEED Consultant, manages the LEED process on a wide range of projects in the Metro Vancouver region, from 40-storey mixed-use developments to institutional buildings with his company Sébastien Garon, Architecture + Design. Over the last decade he has developed a structured and effective approach to implementing sustainable design strategies and incorporating LEED requirements in buildings.

Sébastien was Chair of the LEED Canada Technical Advisory Group on Materials and a Steering Committee member for the past six years. He is always looking for ways to integrate sustainability in his personal life and is currently building his own energy-efficient home, integrating Passive House principles.

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

I believe we should strive to create buildings that respond to their functions, the climate, and the era we live in; that the aesthetic of architecture should be guided by the building’s direct relation to its location: geographical and temporal. I’ve always loved design, but also science and philosophy which, I feel, have become absent from mainstream architecture, where other consultants are hired for the technical aspects such as building science and where design is mostly driven by forms.

For me, sustainable design is simply good design and it has brought science and philosophy back into architecture, thus instilling a broader meaning to building design.

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

I enjoy managing the LEED process because it requires to be knowledgeable on absolutely every aspect of building design and construction, from stormwater management and water efficiency to healthier materials and energy conservation measures, just to name a few.

I feel most people expect LEED to be perfect, but perfection does not exist. LEED is not perfect and was never meant to be; it was to evolve over time. Most importantly LEED is not a design tool. One of the typical complaints I hear about LEED is that a credit that is irrelevant to a specific project or that has limited value is being pursued. Designers roll their eyes while they have to work on this specific credit and clients have to pay to pursue it. Why then is this credit pursued, as opposed to a more relevant one? Because it is cheaper, of course!

Don’t get me wrong, it is part of my role to advise my clients which credits are cheaper, and I fully understand why they are pursued. But don’t complain about it. If a credit that is less relevant but cheaper is being pursued, is it really LEED’s fault? Or are we simply gaming the system, and then blaming the system in return? LEED is a rating system and it has had a tremendous effect at transforming the market. We should simply take it for what it is. LEED is not “the” solution, but can be part of the solution.

3. You’ve worked in green building for over 15 years. Of all that time – what are some of the things that stick out most in your mind?

Many focus on creating the “first”, the “most”, the “biggest”, or the “greenest”, and I’ve personally worked on some of those exciting buildings. It is good for the ego. But if we want to maximize our positive ecological impact, as a whole, I’d like to see some of the energy we are spending on creating these jewels of green building, redirected towards greening the less exciting projects. These advanced green building projects are useful in creating beacons to guide us towards a more sustainable future, but they have very limited overall impact. What we do need in order to curb the actual ecological degradation is to act as broadly and swiftly as possible. In other words, knowing that it often takes as much effort to achieve the last 20 per cent as the first 80 per cent, should we spend our resources achieving 100 per cent on a few high-profile buildings or 80 per cent on the greatest number of buildings that otherwise would not have been touched?

4. You have been involved with the LEED Program for a number of years. How have you seen CaGBC and LEED evolve throughout this time?

This question makes me smile because my involvement with the CaGBC started a while ago, back when there was just one office in Ottawa with a few staff. I was unemployed at that time and I offered to volunteer in exchange for a Reference Guide so that I could study for my LEED AP exam. The CaGBC has evolved by leaps and bounds since. It is encouraging the changes that occurred in the last decade.

I’m excited to see green building becoming mainstream, however, it is bittersweet because I feel over time we are losing focus on the reasons why we do this in the first place, as we tend to make things more intricate, overly precise, or administratively burdensome. The focus should simply and only be on having the greatest impact, and as fast as possible. LEED has changed the market for the better in numerous ways over the last decade, but there is always room for improvement and, too often, we still spend many resources “shuffling chairs on the Titanic”, as opposed to channeling them to keep it afloat.

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

Buildings will be seen more like manufactured objects, for which production is controlled and performance is both modeled and measured. I believe the future holds considerable technological advances in pre-fabrication and quality controls that will help make buildings more environmentally friendly. Pre-fabrication is still cost prohibitive for smaller projects, but I am eager to see it becoming more economically viable to everyone. On-site testing and verification will also play a larger role. I think we are moving away from the old concept of designing and constructing buildings, without ensuring they actually perform.

That being said, I believe we are obsessed with efficiency, when our attention should move towards effectiveness. Like William McDonough eloquently puts it: “Do you look at a cherry blossom and comment how inefficient it is?” No, you don’t, because a cherry blossom beautifully and successfully achieves its desired outcome, even though flowers are being “wasted”. If we want to make change happen, and I mean the drastic changes that are needed, we must change our mindset. With our current behaviours, we can only focus on being increasingly efficient because we want to reduce how bad we are. But what if we were good? We wouldn’t have to strive to become more and more efficient. In fact, we may even find incentives to not be efficient at all!