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The Evolution of Green with Thomas Mueller

Date Published: October 5, 2020

Construction has a significant environmental footprint and at the same time, lags other industries in technology adoption. But there are some advancements that have been made (think LEED Certification) which have fundamentally changed the way we build and renovate. Thomas Mueller, founding director and CEO of the Canada Green Building Council, shares his thoughts on how building owners can further embrace green building strategies in the fight against climate change.

In this episode, we’re going to speak with Thomas Mueller to learn about the future of green building in Canada, and also a little bit about how organizations can embrace green building in the fight against climate change. Thomas Mueller is the Founding Director of the Canada Green Building Council and President and CEO. He leads the Council’s national green building strategy programs and standards along with advocacy and policy initiatives. Welcome to the show, Thomas.

Jen, how are you?

I’m great. Thanks. I’m so glad to have you here.

Thank you for inviting me. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

I’m looking forward to it too. Construction is one of those industries that has a significant impact on environmental footprint, both from the work that we do and constructing buildings, and the operation after. Interestingly, in our industry in some ways, we’ve got some interesting technology that’s happening around materials and equipment, but we’re also a little bit lagging in some of the sustainability markets in general. There have been some great advancements. LEED, for example, and WELL Building Standards that changed the way that we’ve built. What’s interesting is, you’re someone who’s helping lead that positive change in the industry and now we’re moving more into that carbon reduction and social justice piece. I’m interested in digging into that topic.

It sounds great.

To maybe go back before we dig into where things are, I’ve been in the construction industry for several years. Sustainability was one of the first things I dug into. Your name has always been associated with that for me, but you started years before that. Do you want to talk a little bit about what brought you to the green building industry, where were you before that, and how did you enter into it?

I have to go back for many years. I live in Vancouver. At the time, I worked at the Greater Vancouver Regional District, which is now called Metro Vancouver. It’s providing services to about 23 municipalities in what’s called the Lower Mainland. They’re responsible for all these things like 1.4 billion square feet of LEED projects in Canada alone and second-largest after the US.

If you were to look back, I can’t imagine when you started working on this in that 2002 range and became the president in 2005. Did you imagine it was going to explode the way that it did across the country?

No. I don’t think any of us would have thought that were involved. We’re all passionate about it that it would grow to that extent. The reason for that is I worked in the environment for a long time before Green Building. For the most part, it’s a voluntary program. It’s what we call a market-based solution. It’s structured in a way that everybody can adopt it and they can save money, make money and those types of things. It’s market-based. These voluntary systems, if you’re lucky, you’ll get about a 6% to 7% market adoption, then it peters out because these are the passionate people.

With LEED when we did our study a few years ago, we were doing that market impact study, we’re working on redoing and updating that. In some sectors, we reached 20% to 23% penetration rates on the institutional side and in a commercial real estate side to the private sector side reached over 20% penetration rates in that year and that’s quite significant. We never thought that would happen. The first CEO of CaGBC, Alex Zimmerman contacted me in 2019 and said, “When we started off, I drew this curve of what the adoption would be by 2020. It’s ten times that.” None of us would have anticipated that level of market uptake and success.

In BC, especially on the sustainability movement has always been leading edge. It’s no surprise that this started with a small group of individuals, municipality, and companies who are interested in that move forward. When you mentioned that there was an explosion around 2007 and 2008, that’s when I became much more involved on the LEED side of life. One of the things I noticed about CaGBC and LEED adoption that was helpful was the fact that governments and municipalities, provincial and federal also had mandated it for buildings. It normalized the use of the checklist and the standard across the country and also made it a bit more accessible on the private side. What work did you do? What are your thoughts on that adoption on the government side of life and the leadership there? What maybe work did you do to help move that along across the country?

As I remember it, when we started our LEED Canada, there were three entities. It was the federal government that used to be called Public Works and now it’s called Public Services and Procurement Canada, the real estate branch. It was the previous Liberal government. In 2005, they adopted LEED Gold for all their new construction projects over a certain size. The federal government was an early adopter. On the municipal side, it was the City of Calgary that first introduced the LEED Silver policy. I don’t know who the mayor was at the time but clearly Calgary adopted before the City of Vancouver. The City of Vancouver was number three because they had the 2010 Winter Olympics coming up. The mayor was Larry Campbell at the time and he was passionate and interested in this. He said, “We need to have a LEED Gold policy at the City of Vancouver because these are the Olympics. We’re not going for silver. We’re going for gold.”

The government played an important role in leading that change. Those two like new construction design and building retrofit because we need to get a 30% reduction in carbon emissions from the building sector. The zero-carbon was an important step for us to say that buildings can and must be designed to zero carbon performance operationally. Since then, we also expanded it to materials as well. You can reduce the carbon or the embodied carbon in building materials, but that was the challenge. At a time, we knew that the industry had learned enough by using LEED at scale. There wasn’t enough scale, knowledge, products, and technology available that we could do zero carbon buildings so they generate zero-carbon over one year of operation.

It was important to put that out, and also to change the conversation from energy efficiency to carbon. The reason is, you could have an energy-efficient building that still produces a lot of carbon, depending on where the building is, and what energy sources you use. If we want to be in a low carbon economy, we need to talk about the use of carbon language, not necessarily energy efficiency language. It’s an interplay between the two because energy efficiency is a precursor to having a low carbon or zero carbon building and you still pay your bills mainly on energy costs. You will, over time, also pay based on carbon costs, like we do in BC now for several years. I get my FortisBC bill that said, this month, you paid so much carbon tax for the use of natural gas.

We felt compelled that we needed to change that conversation and we were on our way of doing that. We have eleven buildings certified. There might be a few more now, these are the June 2020 numbers. We have over 30 registered and 30 in the pipeline so there’s an expression of interest to use the program. We’re still trying to figure out the finances and so on. We’re seeing a growing interest in good growth in that program and usually takes about three years for programs, for people to understand it and to grow it.

We released our version two and that also includes a requirement to offset embodied carbon in buildings because that’s a big component of a building as well. By moving the standard forward, we have this idea of continuous improvement like in LEED, you always have to get better. You can’t stand still. We also have to be demanding. The industry can do more. The codes are coming up quite aggressively now in many jurisdictions. LEED and Zero Carbon is to break new ground and show the policymakers and regulators this can be done now at a reasonable cost, additional cost but these buildings will pay back in terms of carbon for many decades.

Going forward, if LEED was any indicator carbon will there be more uptake in the next couple of years? Would you envision lots of owners using both a combination of LEED and Zero Carbon Standards going forward? Would you see that being partnered up with something else or like WELL Building Standard? Is that how you see the trend going down the line?

That’s one of the challenges or the things that we need to consider when we talk about zero carbon. We have to make sure that the buildings that we design or renovate are still holistic. Ever since climate change and carbon, we need carbon reduction. It’s a huge challenge to achieve the reductions that we have set for Canada. We also have to keep in mind that, first of all, we build buildings for people, either to live in there, learn in there, and so on. We have to keep that in mind.

We cannot say that we shouldn’t pay attention to the rest of the environmental challenges that we have. If it’s waste, zero waste is a big deal now and the circular economy is becoming a big deal. Also, water and resilience in buildings. Those are the things that LEED brings to the table. We have buildings that use both. There are many buildings using Concert. In fact, LEED has a zero-carbon act which is called LEED Zero Carbon Energy Waste and Water which was introduced in 2019. We’re going to build our zero carbon standards into LEED. If you want to do LEED Zero, you can use our Zero Carbon Standard in Canada only.

To get both the benefits of living on a holistic side, we can also get a zero carbon building. At the same time, we will allow our Canadians for the Canadian industry to also use the Zero Carbon Standard as a standalone because everyone has different interests. We’re driving it forward, but I know that it’s usually important that we should keep buildings addressing all the environmental challenges, not only one. We also need to keep the buildings healthy, not because of COVID-19, but we need to keep them healthy for the occupants. We shouldn’t let zero carbon in terms of super-insulated envelopes. They can be counterproductive in terms of ventilation, fresh air, daylight. It needs to be a well-balanced approach in order for us to be successful.

That’s the one thing that’s been brought up. LEED and WELL do well and they do look at that occupant health component so there’s that indoor air quality piece of what it is to be in a building. If you can build a box that’s super energy efficient, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to be great for the people living and working in that space.

Particularly now there’s a big discussion going on about the reopening of schools. In Ontario, they found out a lot of the schools need to bring in more fresh air. Many of the schools either don’t have an effective HVAC system or they recirculate the same air over and over again. That’s not a good thing. You need fresh air, operable windows, ventilation, and a bigger turnover of bringing fresh air into the schools. These are things we’ve been advocating for many years. It’s interesting to see now that they’re being discussed because of COVID. Parents wanting to keep the children healthy and want to make sure that they stay healthy when you send them back to school.

It’s interesting talking about COVID and there’s a connection there too. Sustainability in general and green building, there’s an intersection of green building social equity and social justice. There is a movement now around connecting climate and social justice and the impacts. Talking about students going to schools or people in buildings that maybe haven’t been maintained in the same way, when we think about people who are maybe at a disadvantage in society, not all of them are in buildings that have great air movement and ventilation. What’s that intersection? As LEED talks about and looks at occupant health, and where we have to go with society thinking about that social justice and having healthy buildings for everybody, not only for those working in companies that can afford to have a new early building. What have you been thinking about that? Where is that direction going?

It’s an emerging field. The US Green Building Council, our sister organization, has launched what they called the Living Standard a few years now that wants to look at that aspect, social equity, justice, and health, in a product context, and what buildings and communities should look like. It’s still early days. The US is digging into that one out. They had a health summit and they had a social equity summit, and so on. What it is trying to address is the social sustainability aspect. It’s the three-legged stool: environment, economy and society. We’re getting into the social aspects now. The next wave now it’s more of how can we make buildings, for example, more accessible for people with disabilities. The Rick Hansen Foundation has a standard to put into the marketplace and it’s been referenced in LEED as an option for creating accessibility for everyone, both people that have disabilities and also elderly. People that don’t have the mobility to do that.

We have a huge housing crisis in Canada. I don’t think that’s going to go away. I always believe that the people on the lowest income level should have the greenest buildings. They should have the most effective and efficient buildings because they are less able to pay for energy, for heating, and for electricity, than people that have a good income. They should also be able to live in a healthy environment and homes because sometimes they have less ability to pay for doctors or dentists than people who have better incomes. It’s a precautionary measure. People with the least income should have the best housing. These are two examples of where this could go. The third one, perhaps, is this whole issue around diversity. If you see one thing that COVID discriminates, people who are in a more marginalized part of our society and were heavily impacted by COVID.

It’s the same thing with housing projects. We need to have maybe more inclusive planning and design of communities with those that live in that community and what works for them. In Canada, probably the best example is indigenous communities, the housing in the North. The government wants to put billions of dollars into housing for indigenous communities. They should be built to the best environmental standards but it needs to recognize these communities how they think about housing, and how they want to live, not for us to impose something on them. You need to be able to do that. You need to be invited in to have a conversation with them and do that work.

It also includes gender issues as well. Maybe you shouldn’t have been in only LEED buildings that have gender-neutral bathrooms. This is important to a huge segment of the population and a growing segment of the population in Canada as well. There are lots of opportunities to address that. I’m quite excited about it. We finally get to the social sustainability aspect because it allows us to get more people engaged also in green buildings and seeing the benefits. For those who are not interested in the environment and money, but more, it gets closer to the community and to personal interest. The buildings where you live, learn and work.

It’s exciting to see how the green building movement can adapt and adopt all of those things and push some of those things and become one of the drivers like it’s been for materials and carbon energy. To wrap up, if an organization was entertaining the idea of LEED, WELL, or Zero Carbon, do you have any advice that you would give them if they were heavily considering it or move forward with one of those standards in their next building or in their building renovation?

I would always advise people that they should look at what their objectives are in terms of what organization is in their municipality, a commercial developer, residential or university. LEED, Zero Carbon, and WELL are tools. They’re rating systems and tools. They’re not an end in itself. LEED is like a menu, you can choose from what you want. There are some minimum requirements, but you can choose what you want to do in your building. For owners and developers, it would be important to think about what you want to accomplish and use the tool to achieve the outcomes. LEED, above all, sets targets and is sometimes an assurance tool. It assures you that I wanted to do this and this. We come in and we verify that has been done. We give you a rating depending on the accomplishment.

Think about it and differentiate what you want to accomplish is probably the best advice, but use LEED, Zero Carbon and use the credible standards anyway, and get it certified. I know that if you don’t certify despite assurances, things will go sideways and you’re not getting the building or investing in a building that you want. Certification and verification, at least for now, and for the foreseeable future is important because it becomes an accepted everyday standard in the industry. We’re on our way there but we’re not quite there yet.

Thanks, Thomas. To start to wrap up, a couple of things I picked out from our conversation. One is the starting of the movement. It’s important. You guys are an example of how a smaller group of dedicated people made a huge change in the industry. We look back years ago to where we are now. It’s incredible. The passion that we had and where that started in BC and where it is now, it’s a standard that’s used across Canada. It’s also interesting to look at how it moved and how municipalities, provincial governments, federal governments, institutions like universities helped to drive adoption. They made it normalized and helped so that the private industry was able to pick it up. The private industry found a way that it connected with that people, planet, profit component and that’s why it’s been so successful in that market as well.

If we want to make things stick and continue to go forward, we need mixes of all of those things. There’s a strong business case and value proposition for green buildings and for the future if anyone’s reading and is interested in going forward. Reading what you said, and what I’ve observed as well from the construction side, certification is important. Using one of the standards provides you that checklist. You don’t have to point, chase. You can find the things that fit best for your building. Know what you want, your objective is your outcome, and use the standard to help you get there. Also, the actual is to manage what you measure.

If you’re not measuring and having someone verify the work you’ve done, you likely may not get all the outcomes that you want. It’s going to be easy to lose track of those. If you’re managing them, if you have to have someone verify, it’s an extra check that the work is being done. I want to encourage anyone who’s reading, if you’re thinking about using one of the standards, there are lots of options now. They continue to help you get better in your business. It’s great for the people in your company, offices, environment, and from a marketing standpoint. It’s a good business decision. Thomas, thank you so much for joining me. It was a great conversation. It’s something I’m passionate about. Hopefully, we’ll see a few more people registered for certifications looking forward to Zero Carbon, LEED and WELL. Thank you so much.

Thank you, Jen. I enjoyed our conversation. Thank you for inviting me to do the podcast. I appreciate that.

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