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Sustainable Architecture

In 1997, scientists and policy makers from around the world met in Kyoto and agreed that by the year 2010, greenhouse gas emissions should be reduced to a level approximately five per cent lower than 1990 levels.  Since the Kyoto agreement was signed, many nations around the world have concentrated their efforts on debating the value and responsibilities of sustainable behaviour rather than reducing carbon emissions.   Although Canada was signatory to the Kyoto Protocol, Canadians have increased greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20 per cent since 1990.  Scientists now warn us that 1990 greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 20 to 25 per cent by 2020 if we are to avoid the dangerous effects of climate change.  Even if the scientists turn out to be incorrect, the over-consumption of non-renewable resources and the accompanying pollution of water, land and the air we breathe cannot be sustained.

Truly sustainable architecture could be defined as the creation of buildings for which only renewable resources are consumed throughout the process of design, construction and operation.  Sustainability status must also include the manufacture and transportation of materials, components and construction equipment.  First Nations people were perhaps the last inhabitants of North America to have truly understood the meaning of sustainability and to have lived accordingly.  The present day examples of truly sustainable architecture are rare, if not non-existent.

Although discussions about oil sands development, “green-washing”, LEED® effectiveness and the Canadian Government’s energy platform are fascinating, the focus should be targeted on actually improving the energy performance of buildings and striving for sustainable architecture.  Architects like Buckminster Fuller began discussing and promoting sustainable architecture and renewable energy at about the time the Whole Earth Catalog was published in the 1960s.  In the 1970s, Canadians were world leaders in the design and development of “super-insulated” low energy residential buildings. 

Considering that buildings consume over 40 per cent of the raw materials and energy produced in Canada, a significant reduction of pollution and greenhouse gas emissions could be achieved in the building industry.   Canadian architects now have the monumental opportunity to join forces with other designers, artists, builders, engineers, environmentalists, policy makers and politicians to reduce the environmental footprint of all buildings and to help create sustainable architecture.

The RAIC actively advocates for a more sustainable architecture.  The following information outlines the RAIC position regarding public policies that affect building design and acts as a tool to assist Architects in promoting and performing more sustainable building practices.

The RAIC 2030 Challenge

The 2030 Challenge has become an international initiative designed to significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of new and renovated buildings.  The RAIC, as well as other provincial and territorial associations of architects, have endorsed this program of setting targets for the reduction of energy consumption of new and existing buildings.  The fundamental objective of this initiative is that by the year 2030, new and renovated buildings will use no fossil fuels, and emit no greenhouse gases (GHGs - carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, sulfur hexafluoride, HFCs, and PFCs).  

Architects require the necessary skills, methodology and tools to design energy efficient buildings, as well as the documentation and information that will assist clients to engage with the 2030 challenge initiative.  The RAIC 2030 Challenge task force has been established in order to develop information, documents and procedures that will assist architects, policy makers and clients design and create sustainable buildings.

Green Building Rating Systems

Green building rating systems attempt to evaluate and quantify environmentally friendly or “green” building design, construction and operations. Some of these systems include LEED® Canada, Green Globes and BREEAM. These rating systems have been very useful in setting targets for raising awareness about sustainable architecture and raising the standards of building design & construction. 

LEED® Canada (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) uses a point system to assign values to six key areas:

  • Sustainable Site Planning
  • Safeguarding Water and Water Efficiency
  • Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
  • Conservation of Materials and Resources
  • Indoor Environmental Quality
  • Innovation and Design Process

The LEED® rating system has been applied to many buildings in various communities throughout the United States and Canada.  Generally, this rating system has raised public awareness, interest and knowledge about the importance of building more environmentally sustainable facilities.  Some very successful LEED® projects have also satisfied the target initiatives of the 2030 Challenge.

The Living Building Challenge is an initiative of the Cascadia Green Building Council that pushes designers and builders beyond the upper limits of the LEED® rating system.  For example, buildings are not to be constructed on environmentally sensitive sites, water supplies are intended to be collected, used and purified on site and energy requirements are to be satisfied by localized renewable energy systems.  The intent of the Living Building Challenge is to stimulate and encourage the future of truly sustainable architecture.

The Building Research Establishment's Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) is a building evaluation system widely used in Europe.  This system was transplanted in North America and became Green Globes, owned and operated by the Green Building Initiative (GBI), and then in Canada as BOMA BESt (Building Environmental Standards) which is owned and operated by the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Canada.

Architects should encourage all levels of government, building owners, and clients to achieve a high level of energy performance for the design and construction of new and renovated buildings.  The application of building rating and point systems as well as involving “Accredited Professionals” in the design and commissioning process of a building must not be a replacement for applying careful thought, logical decision-making and skill to the design development and detailing of an energy efficient building.  It is important that Clients and Architects clearly understand their respective obligations and responsibilities regarding energy performance targets and objectives.  Unrealistic expectations are often followed by disappointment, financial debate and legal wrangling.

Improve Building Code and Standards

The National Research Council of Canada’s Institute for Research in Construction (NRC-IRC) produces building codes for adoption by provinces and other jurisdictions in Canada.  The Model National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings  (MNECB) sets out minimum requirements for features of buildings that determine their energy efficiency, taking into account regional construction costs, regional heating fuel types and their costs, and regional climatic differences. The MNECB has, in addition to sections on the building envelope, detailed information on lighting, HVAC systems, water heating and electrical power.

Presently, the energy performance standards and requirements of Canadian building codes are lower than those of the United States and many other European countries.   Building codes in Canada should be updated in a manner to reflect the serious global effort underway to create sustainable architecture and energy efficient buildings.  Updated and more rigorous building codes will result in raising the energy efficiency of new building projects.  Architects should support and help to maintain the MNECB and promote upgraded energy performance requirements in new building codes.

It is important to remember that building codes have always been based on the minimum standards of performance and design; clients can be encouraged to exceed minimum standards when it makes economic sense to do so.  As a collective group of professionals, Canadian architects have endorsed the objectives of the 2030 Challenge.  In order to achieve an immediate 60 per cent improvement in building energy efficiency, it is necessary to exceed the minimum building codes standards.

Life Cycle Assessment

For more than a decade, the ATHENA Institute has been helping architects, engineers and others to evaluate the environmental impacts of new and existing buildings through life cycle assessment (LCA). Life cycle assessment is an internationally recognized approach to evaluating the impacts a product or process has on the environment over the course of its entire life. It is widely accepted as one of the best ways to assess and compare the environmental impacts of alternate building materials.

A software program named the ATHENA® Impact Estimator for Buildings has been developed to assist building professionals evaluate the environmental implications of design options for most new and renovation building construction projects."

"The Estimator puts the environment on equal footing with other more traditional design criteria at the conceptual stage of a project. It incorporates ATHENA’s own widely acclaimed databases, which cover more than 90 per cent of the structural and envelope systems typically used in residential and commercial buildings. It also simulates over 1,200 different assembly combinations and is capable of modeling 95 per cent of the building stock in North America." (

Life-Cycle Cost Analysis (LCCA)

Life-cycle cost analysis (LCCA) is a method for assessing the total cost of facility ownership. It takes into account all costs of acquiring, owning, and disposing of a building or building system. LCCA is especially useful when project alternatives that fulfill the same performance requirements, but differ with respect to initial costs and operating costs, have to be compared in order to select the one that maximizes net savings.  For example, LCCA will help determine the cost-effectiveness of incorporating a high-performance HVAC or glazing system, which may increase initial cost but result in dramatically reduced operating and maintenance costs. 

Lowest life-cycle cost (LCC) is the most straightforward and easy-to-interpret measure of economic evaluation. Some other commonly used measures are Net Savings (or Net Benefits), Savings-to-Investment Ratio (or Savings Benefit-to-Cost Ratio), Internal Rate of Return, and Payback Period. They are consistent with the Lowest LCC measure of evaluation if they use the same parameters and length of study period. Building economists, certified value specialists, cost engineers, architects, quantity surveyors, operations researchers, and others might use any or several of these techniques to evaluate a project. The approach to making cost-effective choices for building-related projects can be quite similar whether it is called cost estimating, value engineering, or economic analysis.
The purpose of an LCCA is to estimate the overall costs of project alternatives and to select the design that ensures the facility will provide the lowest overall cost of ownership consistent with its quality and function. The LCCA should be performed early in the design process while there is still a chance to refine the design to ensure a reduction in life-cycle costs (LCC). 

“LCC analysis is an economic method for evaluating a project or project alternatives over a designated study period. The method entails computing the LCC for alternative building designs or system specifications having the same purpose and then comparing them to determine which has the lowest LCC over the study period.”  —   ASTM E917 - 05e1Standard Practice for Measuring Life-Cycle Costs of Buildings and Building Systems (

All levels of government, their agencies and crown corporations, as well as private sector developers should be encouraged to develop building programs and to procure building designs and projects based on life cycle costs and not solely on initial capital construction costs.  A more holistic perspective will help building owners appreciate the long-term financial advantages of reduced building operating and maintenance costs and should have a positive effect on the energy performance of buildings.

Housing and Residential Construction

For many years, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) has been involved in the research and development of energy efficient housing and net zero energy homes; most recently, CMHC’s EQuilibrium™ Sustainable Housing Demonstration Initiative resulted in the construction of 12 net zero energy demonstration houses located across Canada.  (

  • The federal and provincial governments should establish stronger incentive programs and tax breaks for upgrading housing stock built prior to 1980 to make homes more energy efficient;
  • Financial incentives, including reduced mortgage and lending rates, should be used to encourage the implementation of houses that consume little or no fossil fuels;
  • Architects should assist the Canadian Home Builders Association in helping to upgrade construction standards; and
  • Architects should advocate to municipalities, housing developers, and to homebuyers, that new housing should be constructed to the energy performance targets of the RAIC 2030 Challenge.

Net Zero Energy Homes

A net zero energy building is one that produces at least as much energy as it consumes in order to function as intended.   This objective is relatively easy to achieve in single family housing where the building envelope is extremely efficient and solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable energy systems are incorporated to produce energy for heating and electrical requirements.  Often connections to the electrical power grid are made in order to replace expensive battery storage systems.  Solar and wind energy systems that generate electricity are expensive; collective systems that serve more than one building are considered to be more realistic.  (

Obviously, climatic conditions have enormous impact on a building’s ability to be net zero energy; a building located in the Arctic Circle has a much greater demand for lighting and heating when sunlight is scarce.  A building located in Southern Ontario has different design challenges that involve both heating and air conditioning requirements.  Most net zero energy buildings have a backup energy or heating system to accommodate periods when systems require maintenance.  Ironically, an important stimulus for building net zero energy buildings is as a backup plan for occasions when electrical power systems fail for extended periods of time. 

An objective of the 2030 Challenge is that all new and renovated buildings will be carbon neutral by the year 2030.   The knowledge and technology exist to achieve that objective in new housing much sooner than 2030.  The renovations and upgrades of existing housing stock represents a much greater challenge with considerably more total energy impact.

Municipalities to facilitate increased density

In order to reduce sprawl, municipalities should be encouraged to change their land use and zoning policies to permit denser and more efficient mixed-use developments. Architects are encouraged to demonstrate to municipal officials creative methods of city-building that allow for intensification and more livable cities.


Governments at all levels must significantly increase funding and develop policies that support mass transit and other modes of transportation for both goods and people. The government currently is sending mixed messages in its policies and funding priorities for transportation. Architects should lobby the Federal Government to stop encouraging highway expansion and developing incentive programs that support increased automobile use and instead concentrate on mass transit and alternative modes of transportation.

Alternative and Renewable Sources of Energy

In order to achieve the objectives of the 2030 Challenge, it will become increasingly necessary to incorporate technologies using alternative sources of energy into building designs.  Architects are advised to research all new types of renewable energy systems for buildings and to ensure that their information is updated and maintained as technologies evolve.  There are many sources of information regarding alternative and renewable energy sources, such as the following websites:

Architects should advocate for the expansion of research and development into new energy sources (such as hydrogen, wind, and solar power).   Furthermore, architects should lobby the Federal Government to expand incentive programs that encourage energy improvements to existing buildings and the application of renewable energy systems.

Construction Waste

In order to reduce construction waste, all levels of government should provide incentives for construction recycling (such as tax credits for recycled material and components) and penalties for construction waste (increased tipping fees or other charges). Architects are encouraged to adjust their designs and specifications to require recycling and reductions in construction waste.

Health Issues to be addressed in architectural design

In association with health and fitness professionals, architects should be encouraged to incorporate public health issues into their designs for new and renovated public use buildings. Obesity and asthma are two diseases facing young people; in fact, adolescents today now have shorter life spans than their parents according to the US Center for Disease Control. Well-marked and convenient stairwells in buildings encourage walking and stair climbing. Compact and walk-able communities encourage exercise and reduce car trips and pollution. Facilities for bicycle storage and showers promote healthy alternatives to commuter transportation systems; provisions for change rooms and showers at the workplace also encourage increased physical activities and a healthier workforce.  Finally, exposure to daylight (and limited amounts of sunlight) has been shown to improve the health of all people, particularly patients recovering from illness.