Stephen Carpenter, Enermodal. Photo by BrianStDenis.com.

ENERMODAL ENGINEERING is Canada’s largest consulting firm exclusively dedicated to creating green buildings and communities. The company recently celebrated its 100th LEED-certified building, and its president and founder Stephen Carpenter was named a LEED fellow. He spoke with Alternatives’ podcaster Mark Brooks.

Mark Brooks: What exactly is LEED certification?

Stephen Carpenter: Very simply, it’s a point-based system. If you do an environmentally good thing with your building then you earn a point, and if you earn enough points then you can hit one of four levels.

MB: Would you say it has really captured the mainstream now? Are most companies considering LEED certification when they put up a new building?

SC: Certainly in the Toronto market, LEED is very much becoming mainstream. You become conspicuous by absence if you don’t have LEED certification. Vancouver is a very mature market, Calgary is coming along quite nicely, [but] some of the smaller centres, perhaps not as much. There are certain [industry] segments where we’re seeing LEED, and not others – big box, warehouse buildings, kind of in the suburban [areas].

MB: Is business booming as well for the consultancy firms that are helping businesses to construct LEED certified buildings?

SC: Yes, we’ve been very busy. We used to try to do everything from Kitchener, but then we’d have to hop on planes and that wasn’t very sustainable. We felt the most sustainable thing we could do was open offices throughout the country.

MB: Is LEED an easy sell?

SC: I’m a little embarrassed to say that current code – standard practices from an energy efficiency and a water efficiency point of view – aren’t very stringent. They set a minimum that you’re not supposed to go below, and I’m sometimes surprised when people say, “I’ve built it to code.” It’s sort of the lowest possible value you could build to. The numbers speak for themselves when you talk about the benefits in terms of energy and water savings, but also in terms of a building that is better for the people. What better way to show that you care about your staff and you care about your productivity than giving them a great working environment, access to natural light and things like that?

MB: It’s not mandatory to do this. Do you think that green building and LEED certification should become the norm?

SC: I tend to [prefer] the carrot and stick approach. The codes could be made a lot more stringent in terms of energy efficiency and the green features, but I also like the idea of having different levels you can strive for. You need people who are innovators, trying new technologies, seeing what works and what doesn’t work. By having these higher levels that perhaps only the most ambitious or innovative are willing to try, there’s a trickle down of those technologies to other buildings.

MB: One of the things that really surprised me was the level of greenhouse gas emissions that come from buildings in Canada. Is this process helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well?

SC: About a third of all the energy used in Canada is associated with buildings. I like to say that’s an underestimation of buildings’ impact, because what are we doing with transportation energy? In a lot of cases, it’s transporting people to and from work, it’s business travel, it’s things like that. So where you locate your building, whether you have access to public transit, how you handle business travel within your organization, has a huge impact. Similarly, on the industrial side, a lot of the materials they are making in fact end up going into buildings: the drywall, the steel studs, the brick veneer. All those things are made by “industry,” but that’s really energy that is being consumed by building. The way we design and operate our buildings – rather than being a third – is probably twice that number. So buildings are really, in my opinion, the biggest driver associated with greenhouse gases.

MB: That’s a huge contribution. It seems to me, then, there may be a role for government policy.

SC: For sure. Government policy, energy pricing, all of those things have an impact on the market. Certainly, the more it’s in the news, the more it’s in people’s faces, the more people start to care about it.

MB: There is this ongoing discussion about embodied energy and whether the greenest building is the one that is already standing. I’d like to get your opinion: Is it better to retrofit or to build new?

SC: That’s a controversial topic. Let’s focus in on the numbers: Embodied energy is the amount of energy that it took to make all the materials that go into the building. Take an existing building [that] for the sake of the argument is a bit of an energy pig – using lots of energy. You say, “Do I try to renovate that building?” It’s always going to be a compromise because it’s much more difficult to insulate an existing building. If I’m starting with a clean slate – for example, in our new office building, we’re looking at an 80 per cent reduction in energy. If I’ve got an energy pig of a building, from a greenhouse gas point of view I’m actually better off demolishing the building and building a new, energy efficient one. Of course, if I demolish it and build a standard building, it probably wouldn’t do too much.

There’s going to be exceptions from a cultural or heritage point of view, but if it’s not a very exciting building, then in my opinion we would be better off tearing it down. We were working with the City of Cleveland, which was looking at redoing the downtown city hall. They had buildings from the 1920s, 1960s and now they were looking at new spaces. They went through the whole study [and] their conclusion was: “Keep the 1920s stuff from a heritage point of view and the quality of construction – it was a great building – but let’s tear down the 1960s one and build a brand new building, where we can really drive the energy efficiency.” To me, that was the right answer.

Mark Brooks is a journalist, broadcaster and environmental educator. Follow him on Twitter: @earthgaugeCA.

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