In Olympic year, Vancouver chooses LEED™ Gold for private buildings!

Brent Toderian's picture
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Followers of Vancouver city planning will remember that in 2008, as part of the approval of the EcoDensity Initiative, our Council approved what remains (we think) the highest green standard for private sector building design in North America. The 2008 policy requires that buildings that go through rezonings (representing most buildings built in Vancouver) must establish that their design, at approval, is capable of achieving LEED™ Silver. We actually nick-named it "Silver Plus", because we mandated that there be a minimum of 3 energy points, 1 water point, and 1 storm water point, emphasizing the things that matter most to us. We dubbed this "LEED™ equivalency", and although we chose at that time not to require certification for various reasons, or even registration with the LEED™ system at the onset, this policy has had a powerful impact on our resulting green building design over the last 2 years. Here's my original post on the subject from back then, with more details.

Our equivalency approach has involved requiring applicants to show on approved drawings how they could achieve Silver, and these commitments become conditions of approval. We've encouraged actual certification, even if we don't require it, and we hope that many buildings will indeed be certified, given that the design is already there, and the certification allows marketers to use the LEED™ brand.

Back in 2008, Council also telegraphed our next step, directing that we move to changing this already continent-leading standard to LEED™ Gold in 2010, our Vancouver Olympic year. The symbolism was obvious, but we also felt the development industry and architects would be ready by then, to take the next big step. Indeed, we enjoy a rare talent-level of local architects and developers here when it comes to green, partially I think because our constantly rising bar has encouraged constant learning and improvement of skills, but also because many of our private developers and architects tend to agree with the green goals, and often want their projects to show responsible leadership. In fact, many developers have been voluntarily out-performing the policy since 2008, going for Gold early.

Well, the Olympic year is here, and this week Council considered our report to go for Gold. We recommended the Gold standard apply to applications as of July 2010, with a required 6 energy points, up from the previous 3 at Silver. We also raised the question of requiring certification, rather than allowing equivalency.

Since 2008, we've all been affected by the global economic downturn, and although Vancouver has weathered that storm better than just about every other place when it comes to the real estate market, we have certainly not been immune. The development industry has been challenged here too, especially around the availability of financing. Although the industry was supportive of the Gold goal, many developers were nervous about the timing as the market continues to recover, and in particular, the possibility that the City might choose to require certification rather than equivalency. On the other hand, some green architects as well as representatives from the Canada Green Building Council came out and lent support for the proposal, and particularly urged Council to set a timeframe to move from LEED™ equivalency to LEED™ certification.

Debates ensued (as they did in 2008) about the cost premiums for Silver or Gold, whether the market valued green and reflected it in the sale price, how LEED™ should relate to heritage buildings and the value of embodied energy, how you could even ensure certification in approvals given that it occurs after construction, and so on. Great discussion and debate on some critical issues!

But while the economy has changed since 2008, something else has changed as well. Vancouver's new Mayor Gregor Robertson and Council had, upon being elected in late 2008, announced the goal of becoming the "Greenest City in the World by 2020". Since then that goal has already translated into many new initiatives and strategies, that (as has happened many times over the years) have added to and upped the ante from past generations (see here for a past post on the many generations of sustainable bar-setting).

Although Council conveyed sympathy and understanding for the industry's challenges, and sought to provide flexibility and further consultation and partnership on the details, they ultimately chose to take another key step toward our greenest city goal. They unanimously approved the new LEED™ Gold standard for rezonings effective in July. They also went further than staffs report, requiring that all rezoned buildings effective immediately be required to register in the LEED™ system. And further, they passed a motion that staff work out the details and issues with the industry and architects quickly, in order to change the policy to require Gold certification "in early 2011". This represents a clear but flexible timeline, with a lot of work still involved, giving the industry a chance to get ready.

Obviously designing better new construction is only part of the climate change solution. Given this, Vancouver has many holistic initiatives underway relating to district energy, transit oriented planning and new transit infrastructure, existing building greening, urban agriculture, walking and cycling, green jobs, electric vehicle infrastructure, and on and on. We have such a long way to go, as truthfully we're not yet even close to sustainability.  It may be just one puzzle piece, but new construction is a critical piece none-the-less when we consider how much of the building stock may turn over in the coming decades.

Cities that wish to lay claim to green-ness will have to show significant leadership around the green design of private sector buildings. Many have shown such leadership in their own public sector buildings, but have been hesitant to do so where the vast majority of new construction originates - the private sector. Experience indicates that incentives are not getting us there, and reasonable regulation can't continue to be seen as a dirty word, as it seems to be in many cities.

Care to race us to being the greenest city in the world? Greener buildings are a big part of that race.

Brent Toderian is an international consultant on advanced urbanism with TODERIAN UrbanWORKS, Vancouver’s former Director of City Planning, and the President of the Council for Canadian Urbanism. Follow him on Twitter @BrentToderian

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