The Future of ZEBs in Vancouver: An Interview with Jim Taggart

Near Zero
July 11, 2018
High Density Passive House Dialogue
September 19, 2018

The Future of ZEBs in Vancouver:

An Interview with Jim Taggart

Among Vancouver’s ever-present environmental advocacy, it can sometimes be difficult to identify where our city is experiencing substantial momentum and where barriers are hindering progress. We caught up with Jim Taggart, Editor of Sustainable Architecture & Building Magazine (SABMag) to discuss the future of Zero Emission Buildings within Vancouver’s landscape.

“We need our most progressive architects and their clients to embrace the concept and bring the others along for the ride. It seems this is exactly what ZEBx is trying to accomplish. (…) The Zero Emissions initiative is the next natural step in the evolution of Vancouver’s building Industry. It’s not a matter of when, but more a matter of how.

ZEBx: What has been your experience so far with Zero Emission Buildings?

JT:      Zero Emission Buildings (ZEB) is a relatively new concept. My first experience with environmentally conscious buildings began while at university in the United Kingdom. This was about the same time that Greenpeace was established in Vancouver.  With this pedigree, it is clear that sustainable and environmentally conscious infrastructure has long been a top priority within the Vancouver community. We witnessed these cultural priorities trickling into the building industry with the introduction and quick adoption of LEED in 2002. Progressive architects quickly adopted LEED standards into their practice, pushing the boundaries of architecture and establishing Vancouver’s reputation as a global leader in “green” infrastructure.

For several years now, there has been a growing recognition within the building community that LEED is not a long-term solution. So, I think the zero emissions initiative is one that is very timely. Vancouver has been blessed with progressive leaders and an ambitious building community. As the city began to adopt more options other than LEED, programs such as Passive House have helped guide the city toward more energy efficient building practices. It will be interesting to see how the concept of zero emissions evolves and where ZEBx will take the industry through its collaboration with stakeholders.

ZEBx: What are some of the barriers in today’s building environment?

JT:      I believe the main barrier is moving industry forward at a pace that is comfortable for its players.

The “concrete culture” in Vancouver is a huge influence right now. Almost everyone is comfortable building in concrete, and can provide consistent cost estimate for concrete construction at the drop of a hat. It’s the material we know best, but concrete is not sustainable and it’s not renewable.

Try bringing wood into the equation and you have an entirely different experience. When you bring in a new system, you need to establish a reliable supply chain from client to subcontractor. Everyone has to be on board and comfortable and working within their own risk tolerance for costs and performance.

The silver lining is we don’t need to convert the entire building industry; at least not right away. If ZEBx can collaborate with 10% of the industry to achieve zero emissions buildings, past experience suggests that this would be enough to create the necessary momentum. Just how Green Peace started. We need our most progressive architects and their clients to embrace the concept and bring the others along for the ride. It seems this is exactly what ZEBx is trying to accomplish.

There have already been several steps made in the right direction. We’ve even had a number of these projects completed successfully here in Vancouver! Consider UBC’s Brock Commons student residence. The 18-storey building has a hybrid wood structure. That structure sequesters a significant amount of carbon and is cost competitive with concrete, making it an important step forward toward the goal of zero emissions.

Another barrier comes from the beauty of Vancouver! Everyone wants panoramic views, creating a market demand for glass buildings. The average high-performance building is currently built to a ratio of 30% or 40% glass to 70% or 60% opaque. Although 40% glass may not offer panoramic views, it still admits an ample amount of light. Premier pricing on views makes it hard to sell a high-performance structure. Developers Look to their payback period as a measure of durability, rather than looking at true life cycle costs – so glass structures become the natural choice even though they are not the most energy efficient.

I am excited to see how ZEBx will tackle this issue with its partners. The way I see it, the city’s involvement is paramount for overcoming this barrier. Aside from connecting industry to solutions, ZEBx’s partnership with the city will hopefully yield incentives that will encourage developers to build high-performance buildings. Perhaps an expedited approval process, additional density and other similar incentives lower costs would be enough to achieve this.

There are also organizations that are focussed solely on building high performance structures, such as Passive House Canada. It will be interesting to see how ZEBx can bring together concepts like Passive House with other industry players to address these issues, and so make high-performance, zero emissions buildings economically viable across all sectors of the market.

ZEBx: Where does that leave Vancouver and the Zero Emissions industry now?

JT:      British Columbia is naturally at an advantage due to its hydro-electric grid. Unlike other municipalities that rely on fossil fuels, Vancouver’s electricity is already virtually emissions free, which makes the transition to zero emission buildings much easier.

When considering energy, the LEED program is already requiring a certain amount of onsite energy. Reducing our dependence on centralized energy sources has multiple benefits, including the resilience of our communities when affected by a large-scale disaster, such as an earthquake.

The question is not so much the capacity of individual buildings for onsite energy, but rather the capacity of the neighbourhood. The city has been really good at this in the past. Back in 2010, in preparation for the Olympics, the city built the Southeast False Creek Neighbourhood Energy Utility system, which to this day recycles waste heat back into the community and most of the time generates enough heating and hot water for all of Olympic Village. These types of systems are low-carbon by nature and reduce the use of centralized and fossil-fuel-dependent energy systems.

The zero emissions initiative is the next natural step in Vancouver’s building industry. It’s not a matter of when, but more a matter of how. I believe ZEBx is on the right track through its model as a neutral organization. There’s no rule of thumb for zero emissions buildings. Although a zero emissions building has never been constructed yet, we’re getting close! And there are many useful tools and practices out there that can keep things moving forward. We have a steep learning curve ahead of us, but with ZEBx to support, it seems whichever strategy is leveraged, the main goal refocuses on: “how can you go about implementing ZEBs in a meaningful way?”

ZEBx: How do you think ZEBx can best support industry and accelerate the implementation of zero emission buildings?

JT:      There are a lot of components that come into play when discussing ZEBs. There’s the sociopolitical culture of the city, the financial restrictions of supply and demand, and the accessibility to knowledge and innovation.

I’m intrigued by the launch of ZEBx and I’m eager to see how it will recognize our city’s end goal. As an industry, we must offer advice, facilitate, connect and encourage improvements that are within people’s individual acceptance of risk. We need to encourage confidence in industry innovation. We need to see buildings that have already experienced success and the benefits that come with ZEB practices. We need to focus on more than just energy reduction. Sustainability is more broadly concerned with the health of the community, the human condition and the environment that supports us. Without this, what’s the point?

I think ZEBx does just that. It’s industry-focussed, of course, but the obvious wide-spread effects of its objectives cannot be ignored – ZEBx’s practices will trickle into the wellbeing of our community. All stakeholders seem to have a piece of the puzzle, and I hope to see ZEBx fit those pieces together. Whether it’s LEED’s onsite energy requirements or Passive House’s high efficiency envelope designs, it seems the answer lies not in a single solution, but rather a combination or amalgamation of several solutions.

With a Master’s degree in architecture from the University of Sheffield, England, Jim has dedicated the majority of his professional career to the widespread engagement and awareness of architecture and sustainable buildings. Jim is also the Executive Director of the RAIC Foundation.  He was inducted into the RAIC College of Fellows in 2010 and was the recipient of the Premier of British Columbia’s Wood Champion Award in 2012.