A retrospective with Joe Van Belleghem

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Member Profiles

CAGBC is celebrating its 20th anniversary with green leaders who played a major role in establishing the organization. With a strong background in business and real estate development, Joe Van Belleghem was among the first in Canada to identify the value shift in the building sector towards sustainability. A founder and the first CAGBC member, Joe also built the first building to be certified LEED in Canada. In this interview, we revisit CAGBC’s founding with him.

You can watch the interview in full on our YouTube channel.

CAGBC is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. Can you tell us a bit about your involvement with the founding of CAGBC?

I was involved right from the very beginning, wrote the initial business case to figure out how we’re going to fund the organization, acted as interim director while we did a search and raised funds for the organization. With Kevin Hydes, Peter Busby and many others,  we put together the original direction to form the organization to get it going. So quite involved right from the beginning.

In the beginning, the dominant mindset was one in which protecting the environment was more of a compliance issue. Do you think that CAGBC has been successful in changing this approach?

Our goal was never to make LEED or the Council a a compliance tool. I’ve always viewed it as being getting people into the game and really understanding the benefits of designing buildings that are good for the environment, good for people and that make economic sense. You realize just how logical it is once you start designing green buildings from an environmental, social, and economic perspective. I’ve never really thought of it as a goal to be codifying our green building movement and building codes. I think it’s more about trying to get people into the game, drawing inspiration and really opening people’s minds so that you can really push the envelope moving forward to really create better buildings and better cities.

Certifications can usually be used as a great indicator for the green building momentum within a country or within a region. How do you think CAGBC has done when compared to the initial forecast of certification targets in Canada?

The one thing I do know is it was woefully underestimated, which I anticipated at the time. I remember sharing the projections of how many members and certifications we would have and everyone was going that’s too aggressive. But in my heart, I knew that if others started doing it, more would follow in the momentum and would accelerate well. Obviously, CAGBC has done tremendous globally in terms of per capita. Which is no surprise. We as Canadians take our environment seriously and I’m just really proud of how everybody in the country that’s been involved in this really pushed it forward. So, I’m not surprised by the momentum. The question is, can we sustain that and move to the next level? 

Canada has ranked second globally on the list of top countries and regions for LEED in 2021. What do you think we need to do to continue to drive certification and adoption of green buildings?

I think LEED, in my view, should never have been viewed as a compliance tool. It was just to get people to think about it…I didn’t want our teams to be point chasing and wanted them to think broadly. I think in the future we need to really expand what LEED is about to also incorporate social equity into it. I fundamentally believe that when you approach the design of buildings or mixed-use communities, you really have to come from that mindset of being environmentally, socially and economically responsible. And when you look at it from that lens, everything gets stronger, the pie gets bigger. The economics get bigger. The social impact is bigger than the environmental. So, I think it’s time for us to revisit LEED from that perspective and really realize that the world is facing a lot of pressures, whether that’s homelessness, affordable housing, just inclusiveness and what we do in our designs and our communities. I’m hoping that’s the next thing we as Canadians or the Canada Green Building Council really leads the green building movement on to try to really adopt more of this triple bottom line kind of approach to developments.

In addition to the triple bottom line, what do you think CAGBC should also aim to focus on over the next 20 years?

It’s funny, when you look around the development community, around the world, in the United States, the green building movement really largely initially got field momentum from the public sector. In Australia, it was really fueled by the private sector and private developers. In Canada it was sort of a mixture of both, and I think in my personal belief, what we need to do is just celebrate successes more. It’s about getting more and more people into the game. You don’t want to have people go oh yeah, I just wanted a green building because I needed the LEED certification. You want them to understand the importance of it and celebrate that because the more you celebrate, the more people want to get into the game. And so, I think that would be one thing I would suggest: celebrate the wins more. You know there’s a lot of negativity in the world right now and just celebrating positive impacts and storytelling is so important. I know for myself personally I learned so much from just reading about or seeing what other people are doing. And it’s not often what they’re doing in green building design. It’s how they did it because as we all know, to do great stuff you need a different kind of a mindset to make it happen. 

This interview was edited; watch the full interview here