20 years of Green Building with Peter Busby

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Member Profiles

In celebration of our 20th anniversary, we’ve been speaking with CAGBC founders. Peter Busby has been a powerful catalyst and a pioneer in the growth of the green architecture movement across North America, and today his work continues to inspire new generations of architects and advocates. In this interview, we go back in time to the CAGBC’s beginning. You can watch the interview in full here.

Can you share with us how you were involved in the founding of CAGBC?

From my recollections, the USGBC was having a profound impact in the in the United States, and quickly gaining momentum. It was designed to be a market-changing force to introduce sustainable design to all the architects, engineers, and client groups such as developers and others. They developed the US version of LEED v1, v2 v 3 and we tried to apply those in Canada and use them. We filed for our first LEED approval through the USGBC for a building in White Rock when I realized that Americans didn’t understand what the regulatory framework in Canada was and what the different market issues were. So, we asked Dr. Ray Cole at UBC to make a recommendation on what we should do about that, and he recommended that we bring LEED to Canada and modify it to for the Canadian marketplace. And so, a series of people got together and said, well, that means we really have to set up an organization to manage the use of LEED for Canada, so we should form the Canada Green Building Council, and we did.

Looking back again at where you were when you started this journey, how has the definition of green buildings evolved over the last couple of decades?

Quite significantly. There’s been a lot of progress made in terms of the science as well as public opinion. Twenty years ago, there weren’t very many organizations who were interested in sustainable design. Universities were the first adopters of early green buildings as you have professors and scientists who are aware of climate change issues and want to have the universities respond, but there was no interest in the development marketplace. There was some interest in authorities having jurisdiction, mainly cities that wanted to improve park space and improve the durability of buildings. There was interest, but there wasn’t much known, so we started to team together with Mechanical Engineers, mainly KEENE Engineering from across Canada to develop our understanding of how to make greener buildings.

That started with demand reduction and performance improvement: daylighting, envelopes, fresh air, operable windows, which was all the earliest stuff that we put together. We learned about stratification of air, natural air movement and we learned about a lot of things from Europe, particularly Germany and the Scandinavian countries that were well ahead of us in terms of green buildings and deduction in energy demand from buildings. So, gradually we put together a package of strategies and that came into wider use. Carbon wasn’t really a big factor in those days, it wasn’t as apparent how disastrous carbon in the atmosphere would get. Mostly, it was about energy reduction and savings. Remember, we had that first oil crunch and oil squeeze where cost of energy went way up, and that was followed by a bit of a collapse in the oil market and things got cheap again. So, we had to sustain the effort to have people stay focused on developing sustainable design and we had to develop other strategies.

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LEED was actually pretty good that way because LEED wasn’t just about energy, it was about site, water, health and so it broadened everybody’s understanding of what sustainable design is. Of course, that has gotten incredibly more complex now with all kinds of standards and goals. Twenty years ago there wasn’t much available in terms of energy efficiency. Today it’s quite sophisticated and complex as supplies, firms and the industry in general responded to the demand for more energy efficient systems. The focus these days is on zero carbon both in operations and embodied carbon in buildings. And about 8 percent of the total carbon emissions on the planet are caused by cement, so it’s at a good focus. That’s not the kind of issues we talked about 20-25 years ago.

On that topic of evolving practices and sustainable design, what role did you see CAGBC play in the evolution of the construction and architecture practice?

Certainly, CAGBC was very successful. First of all, we’ve measured success in terms of the number of LEED certified buildings. It was Silver at first, then gold and then platinum, then they started updating the versions of LEED Canada. Each version got more prescriptive and more performance-based, becoming more demanding, which helped improve the understanding of the marketplace for sustainable design. Pretty well every architect in Canada became an accredited LEED professional and most mechanical and electrical engineers did as well so the number of certified buildings increased from dozens to thousands, and the LEED certified building stock grew to millions of square feet across the country. So, it was very powerful as an organization and quite progressive economically. CAGBC was able to generate revenue and turn that into further research and development and refinement of the tools to increase the presence in the marketplace, so I’d say it was very successful.

What are some of the unexpected challenges you’ve seen emerge over the last few years?

The main challenge has been education. That’s always been one of the main things that the CAGBC has worked on. First of all, we had to educate the professionals as to how to do it and then we had to educate our clients about the importance of sustainable design. Then, we had to educate the general public. If you think about the sustained effort that CAGBC is undertaking right now to introduce its Zero Carbon Building standards and get it get it used across the country, it’s about education. CAGBC knows the importance of carbon reduction in operations and embodied carbon, but that doesn’t translate immediately to the public. The electrification of our buildings and cleaning the grid up matters as well as cleaning up our act as practitioners, builders and designers.

What do you think CAGBC should focus on over the next 20 years?

If we want to get to 100 percent of buildings carbon free in operations, I think that’s achievable and doable. And I think CAGBC can back that. I think that the support for lowering embodied carbon in buildings is very important, and CAGBC can lead that. CAGBC has the power to compel manufacturers to identify what their materials are made of and what their carbon footprint is. For example, the concrete industry is only just beginning to realize that they’re in the forefront of carbon emissions. CAGBC can hold roundtables and bring industry leaders in and say, OK, what are we doing about it? Share knowledge, build standards and share them. CAGBC could do that. That would be great thing. Getting the steel industry to do similar things. I think being proactive with the industry is key. CAGBC impacted the profession, and the way buildings are built and now it can impact the way materials are made and the carbon footprint of all of those. It would be a very powerful future and that could be a goal for the next 20 years.

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