Ask the Expert: Joanne Perdue, Chief Sustainability Officer at the University of Calgary discusses working on sustainability and green building in a university context

Joanne Perdue

Joanne Perdue is the Chief Sustainability Officer at The University of Calgary where she heads their initiative to become a Canadian leader of sustainability in higher education. Joanne has over 25 years of experience in sustainability and green building, where she spent nearly 20 years as a practicing architect with a specialty in high-performance green buildings. Joanne’s desire to work on more systemic changes for sustainability led her to her current position where she is able to perform as an organizational strategist and change management specialist.

Since joining the university in 2007 as the founding director of the Office of Sustainability, Joanne has contributed to the integration of sustainability into university policy, planning and reporting frameworks.

1. Please tell us about your career in sustainability/green building and how it led to where you are today.

Working in this space for over 25 years, I have always followed my values and my commitment to work that contributes to creating a more sustainable future. I spent close to 20 years as a practicing architect with a specialty in high-performance green buildings. My project approach blended environment performance with a commitment to creating inspiring places that people love to occupy, this being one of the keys to longevity in the built environment.

Over time, my interest in working on more systemic change for sustainability grew, as did my conviction that one green building at a time was an insufficient pace and scale of change. In 2007 the University of Calgary presented me with a fantastic opportunity to do just that. I joined the university to lead their initiative to become a Canadian leader of sustainability in higher education. As the Chief Sustainability Officer at the University of Calgary, I am an organizational strategist and change management specialist working at a pan-institutional scale.

2. In what ways are university and college campuses positioned to lead in sustainability and green buildings?

Three ideas inspire me to continue working on sustainability and green buildings in the campus context.

  • The first is the opportunity to work on sustainability in the built environment from a campus scale, to think about how to evolve the campus into an eco-district within the larger city.

  • The second is the idea of the campus as a learning-laboratory for sustainability. Universities can explore and demonstrate emerging technologies and strategies. More critically, they can provide students with hands-on experiential learning opportunities through sustainability projects in the campus context; projects that complement classroom theory. Not only does this help advance university sustainability practices, it prepares the next generation of sustainability practitioners across all disciplines.

  • The third idea that engages me is the challenge of how to build effective governance and change management to advance sustainability across a large and complex organization. This is the backbone for building engagement and distributed leadership, accountability and action.

3. You have so much experience in green building and have seen it evolve over the years. In terms of projects you’ve worked on – what stands out the most in your mind and what lessons do you think are worth sharing?

Without a doubt, it’s the people that I have had the opportunity to work with and the remarkable outcomes that emerge from the right team with the right process. For me, there are three essential ingredients for a successful project: an explicit and compelling project vision that articulates why sustainability matters to the community that the project serves; a highly-engaged and interdisciplinary team with an authentic commitment to doing the right thing (and of course deep knowledge in green buildings); and employing an integrated design process that creates an environment for innovation.

4. As we know, health in green building is becoming increasingly important. You’ve also had experience working with the WELL Building Standard. Seeing as this is still a relatively new concept for Canada, what can you tell us why should we interested?

Buildings are primarily for people. We spend 90 per cent of our time indoors and 90 per cent of organizational operating costs are related to people. The built environment has a powerful influence on the health and wellbeing of our students, faculty and staff. Many studies confirm the linkages between indoor environmental quality, health and wellbeing, absenteeism, and productivity. As the Chief Sustainability Officer for the University of Calgary, I am particularly interested in the links between the quality of our indoor environments and learning outcomes.

The WELL standard is a tool that focuses on optimizing individual health and wellness through the lens of building and furnishing components and through workplace/learning-place health and wellness practices. It encompasses the concept categories of air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, and mind. WELL shifts the focus from environmental performance to human performance. In this way, it complements LEED through introducing a stronger social component to sustainable building design and operations.

5. Do LEED and WELL work well together? Would someone working on a LEED project find incorporating WELL a natural extension of this?

WELL and LEED v4, in particular, work well together. This is because LEED v4 delves deeper into material health, which is an important consideration in WELL. The WELL Concept categories of Air, Water and Light overlap LEED v4 credits and include additional requirements. The Concept categories of Nourishment, Fitness, Comfort, and Mind are completely new, which means that different expertise, such as health and wellness and food services, will be needed on project teams presenting a larger role for internal experts. Similar to LEED, WELL projects need to establish a vision for health and wellness at the outset to attain best outcomes at best cost.

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

In Canada, the average age of our non-residential buildings is over 30 years. There is an opportunity in both the short and long-term to embed sustainable building practices within the renewal of our existing buildings. In this way, the built environment is a key platform to substantially reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, differentiate Canadian expertise in sustainable building design, construction and operations, while generating notable reductions in owner operating costs.

Looking further abroad to China and India, for example, the focus is on new buildings, new communities, new infrastructure, all of which will be in place a half century or more. Sustainable design and building practices are critical in terms of the resources they will consume, land use impacts, their ongoing carbon footprint and their resilience in a changed climate.

In terms of future challenges and opportunities, I believe we are facing an innovation challenge. The building sector has made incremental progress in energy and water efficiency, some inroads in material health and efficiency, and we have started thinking about density and connectivity. However, we have largely continued to use the same approach to project design, delivery and operations. Conditions are ripe for disruptive thinking to catalyze more rapid innovation. I believe this will come from new actors in the building sector that will introduce new thinking and new technology used in new ways.

Younger innovators and entrepreneurs will challenge the status quo and embrace change. The other factor that will drive change and resiliency thinking will be the mounting costs and risks associated with severe climate related events and geo-politically induced disruption of economies.