Ask the Expert: Ryan Zizzo

Member Profiles

Ryan Zizzo is a professional engineer with nearly 15 years of climate-smart construction project management experience across Canada and Europe. The Founder & CEO of Mantle Developments, Ryan creates and implements sustainability strategies that reduce buildings’ environmental impacts. His focus areas include net-zero strategies, green building certifications, embodied carbon life cycle assessment, and climate resiliency. His experience and expertise are greatly appreciated as a member of CAGBC’s Zero Carbon Steering Committee. In this interview, he reflects on the opportunities and challenges in emission-free building projects.

Tell us how you came to be involved in sustainability.

I’ve always been fascinated by the built environment. The idea that the buildings, cities, and realities that we inhabit and experience daily is a result of decisions by people just like you and me has always been intriguing. Our reality isn’t fixed, or just a given – we can actually influence what our future environments become. I knew I wanted to be part of those discussions.

This passion drove me to study structural engineering. After obtaining my bachelor’s degree, I knew there was more I wanted to learn, and I also knew I wanted a career in a new and dynamic field – one that had a lot of growth potential and that would keep things fresh and interesting as it developed. That led to me focusing my master’s degree (2007-2009) on the nascent field of green buildings and sustainable infrastructure. I got a job as one of the first members of the green buildings team at a large consulting engineering firm in Toronto, working on the first generation of LEED buildings across Canada (the O.G. – LEED NC Canada v1!). I was hooked. 

Your mission with Mantle Developments is ensuring projects are future proof. What does that mean to you?

Thriving cities of the future need to be net zero carbon and climate resilient. That’s what we push our clients and projects towards at Mantle Developments. It’s really that simple. Not every project will get there right away, but that’s the ultimate vision for a truly sustainable built environment of the future. What’s really exciting to me is the opportunity to not only reduce the negative impacts of our current construction practices, but to use the built environment as a solution towards solving the problems of climate change. 

We have the technical ability to create climate-restorative buildings that actually pull carbon out of the atmosphere by building with carbon-storing material and operating the buildings with 100 percent  clean and renewable energy. Carbon-storing materials can include more wood and mass timber, but also can include new and innovative forms of carbon-storing concrete and steel, or even more intriguingly, by using other bio-based materials made from agricultural by-product that we are already growing but are letting go to waste. These things are technically possible – we just need the will to change. 

Buildings of the future must also protect us from the increasingly hostile climate conditions that we are already seeing and will worsen for future generations. This is the vision for the future-proof cities of tomorrow that I want to help contribute to during my career. 

Embodied carbon is increasingly becoming important in carbon reduction strategies. What do we know about the industry’s readiness for voluntary embodied carbon assessments?

Embodied carbon management, reduction, and ultimate elimination through net-zero strategies, are the next great tasks for the green buildings industry. Today, embodied carbon is responsible for the vast majority of emissions in new high efficiency buildings, especially ones that are powered by green energy, which is becoming more common every year. If we aren’t managing embodied carbon, we’re ignoring a massive opportunity. And since embodied emissions are released during building material manufacture and transportation, they happen upfront, during procurement and construction, and can never be renovated out of a project. This contrasts with operational emissions, which can be reduced if a building undergoes some future deep green renovation or transitions to a lower carbon energy source. Once embodied carbon emissions are in the atmosphere, the damage is done.

The industry is starting to wake up to this, and we are seeing more projects undertaking voluntary embodied carbon assessments and reductions. Programs like LEED v4 and CAGBC’s Zero Carbon Building program have been instrumental in raising the profile of this topic. Many stakeholders are weary at first to dig into the topic of embodied carbon, but soon realize there is low-hanging fruit to reduce their embodied carbon easily and dramatically with extremely little to no impact on their project budget and schedule.

Ultimately, we need policy to make sure all future construction projects manage embodied carbon. We currently have minimum energy efficiency requirements in the building code. It’s only a matter of time until those requirements evolve into carbon caps that include operations and embodied impacts. This change is already happening elsewhere, including in the French building code. It can’t come to Canada soon enough.

What are some common barriers? What are some of the drivers?

In my view, there are two main barriers to more widespread embodied carbon management. The first is budget. Although lower carbon materials can often be cost-neutral, it costs money for engineering analysis to investigate and uncover these alternatives. When this type of analysis doesn’t lead to any immediate monetary savings (like reducing operational energy can), it’s a difficult sell. Builders need to understand that reducing their embodied carbon may not reduce their costs, but it will increase project value.

The second is the current lack of high-quality data for the embodied carbon of building materials. Only some manufacturers currently have environmental product declarations (EPDs) which are needed for embodied carbon assessments of buildings. We often need to rely on industry-average data, or EPDs from other regions or manufacturers as proxies for the products spec’d on a given project. The more manufacturers create their own EPDs, the more precise and useful whole building life cycle assessment results will become.

Canadian manufacturers would benefit from creating EPDs since many regions in Canada have very low carbon energy. Materials and products that are manufactured with lower-carbon energy are inherently lower carbon materials. As governments around the world are increasingly requiring EPDs and incentivizing the purchase of lower carbon materials, Canadian manufacturers can be at the top of the list to provide this growing market with low carbon materials of the future – but they need EPDs to demonstrate this.

One major driver for more embodied carbon management is that increasingly companies are making commitments to measure and reduce their Scope 3 emissions – which includes embodied carbon. We are also starting to see the first generation of embodied carbon management policies rolling out, be it in voluntary programs like the Zero Carbon Building standards, or in mandatory policies from leading jurisdictions like Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton, and the Government of Canada – all of which have policies requiring some form of embodied carbon measurement for certain types of construction projects.

Can you tell us more about your role with the Zero Carbon Steering Committee? Since applications are currently being accepted do you have any advice for members considering joining the committee?

It’s been an honour to serve on the Committee for the past four years. I got to learn from some of the best and brightest green building minds in Canada and helped raise the profile of embodied carbon. I was one of the leading voices helping decide how v2 and v3 of the Zero Carbon Building Design standards evolved the approach to embodied carbon management – easily some of the most rewarding moments of my career so far. The Committee provides an opportunity for you to make a real difference and help guide what best-in-class climate smart construction in Canada looks like.

CAGBC recently submitted recommendations to Finance Canada ahead of the prebudget consultation. Are there any areas of government policy that you think have been overlooked or need more focus when it comes to reducing carbon emissions?

The CAGBC recommendations are bang on – I strongly support them. However, I think there’s more that can be done by policy to value reductions in carbon emissions. As I previously noted, there’s currently no upfront monetary benefit to a builder to use lower embodied carbon materials. This comes as a shock to most people. We have a national price on carbon, yet a major decision (the material selected for a construction project) that can greatly reduce carbon has no incentives or benefits associated with making the lower carbon decision. We should be able to link avoided, reduced, or better yet, carbon that is removed from the atmosphere and stored in a building, to some kind of monetary incentive other than long term value of your asset. I would urge policy makers across Canada to give it some thought.