Certifiably green | The Coast Halifax

Certifiably green

As Canada's LEED program to certify green buildings surges, Atlantic Canada falls behind the curve.

Six years ago, the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green rating system came to Canada. The program is an international standardized way to assess the lifetime environmental impact of buildings. While no standardized system is flawless (who gets to decide what counts as green; can the same standards really apply everywhere?), LEED forces greenwashers to put their money where their mouths are.

For a while things were slow, but in the past three years registrations for LEED certification have quadrupled in Canada, reaching 2,200 buildings this year. So far 189 are certified, with the rest in progress. "It's a huge upswing," says Lara Ryan, director of the Atlantic chapter of the Canada Green Building Council.

But, the Atlantic region is straggling. In Nova Scotia, just 69 buildings are registered, with only four certified. Another five buildings are certified in New Brunswick and PEI, with none in Newfoundland. Comparatively, 681 buildings have been registered for LEED in Ontario, with 68 certified already.

"It's not just a population thing," Ryan says. "We need to foster better decision-making, awareness, policy and commitment to LEED." It's her daily struggle, and she has seen some progress. Both the province of Nova Scotia and Halifax Regional Municipality have made it law that all their new buildings must be LEED certified. Still, the lion's share (35 percent) of LEED buildings are commercial, with 29 percent being provincial or municipal buildings. Another 10 percent are academic buildings.

Nova Scotia's newest LEED building is a one-storey office building with about 20 workers on Brownlow Avenue in Burnside. It's owned by the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Canada's largest union. The building passed its gold certification (the second-highest LEED standard) with flying colours and is awaiting its official designation.

A few years ago, CUPE decided it made more fiscal sense to own its buildings rather than rent them, and that green buildings are a good way to save money while positioning the organization as an environmental leader. "Our members reside in communities and raise their kids in communities," says CUPE Nova Scotia president Danny Kavanagh, explaining the union's green bent. Those members push the organization to think about the long-term sustainability of those communities, and their children.

Kavanagh was one of the first members of CUPE's national environment committee. Thanks to that committee's work, the union now owns 15 offices in Canada and most are LEED-certified or -registered, including the Burnside building and two in New Brunswick.

"You get credit for everything you do: water efficiency, low-flow faucets and toilets, high-efficiency gas boilers, improved lighting and energy-efficient windows," he says.

CUPE kept the building process low-impact. Rather than build from scratch (necessitating more materials and energy), an old building was retrofitted, and three-quarters of construction waste from the site was recycled.

Kavanagh is not worried about the higher construction costs because he expects a quick payoff period gained from greater efficiencies. "In two years' time we'll be saving money on costs; LEED standards are saving us $1 million a year nationally."

With savings like that, LEED seems a no-brainer, yet uptake in the east remains low. There is a significant cost associated with getting a building LEED certified, which may explain why so many register but don't close the deal with actual certification. As a result, we see taglines like "this building built to LEED standards." The problem is, if there's been no third-party verification, how do we know it's true?

Lara Ryan says that not going through with certification is a building owner's choice, and she's less concerned about lost funds to the LEED process than the general lack of uptake in our region. "In Nova Scotia the private sector is not as involved," she says. "We're responding by highlighting projects like the new Nova Scotia Power office building and the Halifax Farmers' Market. They show what LEED buildings look like, the cost-benefit."

The building owners are eager to show off their accomplishments---NSP is planning an interpretive centre and CUPE happily gives tours---but Ryan says there's a much bigger role government could play in promoting LEED and showing that it's more beneficial than onerous, even from a purely financial perspective. "People are looking for it but there's too much of a wait-and-see attitude."

Chris Benjamin is the author of the Canada Reads long-listed novel Drive-by Saviours.