By Ted McIntyre

Time, money and a whole new set of parameters is making sustainable building and transparency a challenge—but a necessary one

Halfway through his webinar, Purposeful Disruption: Change for Good, at the 2021 Toronto Interior Design Show, Mike Johnson donned a brown top hat.

“In the 1800s, there was a profession called hatting,” began Johnson, Director of Sustainability at 3form, a leading manufacturer of eco-friendly materials and hardware solutions for the architecture and design industry. “To make hats like this, they added mercury to animal hides to make felt. Unfortunately for those making the hats year after year, mercury built up in their bodies and in high enough concentrations caused insanity, which is where the term ‘mad as a hatter’ comes from.

“This is more complicated than a ‘green’ label,” Johnson continued. “Most commodities come from interconnected pathways. While the product may not be unhealthy for the end user, we have to be cognizant of who handles these products right across the supply chain and optimize the manufacturing process if we’re going to be concerned about global supply chain worker safety, the environment and social equity.”

This deeper understanding of what exactly goes into the products and processes that the construction world relies upon is spurring a rethink of the built environment. As noted by Architecture 2030, an independent group seeking to completely phase out fossil fuel CO2 emissions by 2040, 11% of global greenhouse gases are accounted for by building materials and construction processes, with building emissions responsible for 28%. That’s a total of just under 40% of all greenhouse gases. 

The group further notes that approximately two-thirds of the global building area that exists today will still exist in 2040. And the global building stock is expected to double in area by 2060 from today’s current numbers—the equivalent to adding another New York City to the world every month for the next 38 years. And unlike operational carbon emissions, which can be reduced over time in a structure through energy upgrades and renewable energy, embodied carbon emissions are locked in place as soon as a building is built.


It’s a challenge that can’t be ignored, given Canada’s commitment under the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40-45% (below 2005 levels) by 2030 and to become net-zero by 2050. Fortunately there are a number of tools and organizations devoted to addressing the issue, one being Builders for Climate Action, a growing a coalition of Canadian builders, designers, developers, policymakers, researchers and manufacturers. Entitled Achieving Real Net-Zero Emission Homes, the group’s groundbreaking new report, initiated and supported by Natural Resources Canada, cautions that we may be missing the forest for the trees. 

“To date, the central tactic for addressing emissions from Canadian home building has been the introduction of energy efficiency tiers in the National Building Code, with each of the five tiers representing a significant reduction in energy use for the homes, with an anticipated correlation to operational carbon emissions (OCE) reductions,” the study notes. However, the embodied carbon—or what the authors refer to as material carbon emissions (MCE)—that comes along with this construction may actually “outweigh the impact of OCE for several decades and be the leading cause of GHGs in the sector.” 

The report compared three home styles—a bungalow, a two-storey house and a row-house end unit. “Results varied widely, from a high of 758 kilograms of CO2 equivalent per square metre of floor area (kg CO2e/m2) to a low of –84 kg CO2e/m2 (representing net carbon storage, rather than emissions) for the Tier 5 two-storey. The very wide range of results indicates that material selection can impact the total emissions of a new home by as much as 842 kg CO2e/m2 without changing the design or performance of the home.”

Interestingly, there was no correspondence of product price to its efficiency. “In some cases, the material with the best MCE had low costs, while the material with the worst MCE had the highest costs,” researchers said.  

Further, given that insulation tends to be a very high-MCE product, the more energy-efficient homes, ironically, often finished with worse emission numbers. That’s obviously problematic, considering “a large percentage of the Canada Greener Homes Grant money will be spent on insulation materials, which this study has shown to be the most impactful, and often most detrimental, to MCE. Without incorporating MCE into these retrofit programs, the Canadian government may be incentivizing an overall increase in GHGs, rather than a net reduction.”

Given that today’s regulatory framework focuses solely on energy efficiency and ignores MCE and fuel source emissions, the study’s primary “recommendation is to adopt a unified metric for measuring and regulating emissions in the home-building sector that combines all three emissions factors into one: Carbon Use Intensity (CUI).”

This would also allow for “regionally appropriate ways” to reach carbon targets, no small value given that ”homes with a high-emission fuel source (emission-intensive electrical grids or fossil fuels) will never be able to meet net-zero emission targets,” the study concludes.


So how do builders, renovators, designers and architects determine which products to employ? The most useful indicator—when available—is an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), an independently verified and registered document that communicates transparent and comparable information about the life-cycle environmental impact of a product. Registering for an EPD certification begins with conducting a life-cycle assessment (LCA), a systematic analysis of the environmental impact over the course of the entire life cycle of a product, material, process, or other measurable activity.

“EPDs allow us to compare products side by side in order to choose the one that has the least environmental impact,” Johnson explains. “This also gives manufacturers great insight as to where the sources of their impacts are coming from so that they can correct them and make better products.”

Transparency like that is in high demand today, suggests Heather Gadonniex, Director of Sustainable Building and Construction at PE International, a global sustainability services and software firm. “With the previous version, LEED 2009, the emphasis was looking at products through the lens of a single attribute, like what is the recycled content of a product, or what its regionality was. Now with LEED V4, we’re looking at products from a life-cycle lens, focusing on transparency, disclosure and optimization.”

Rockwool Insulation is among the companies making such strides. One of the esteemed LP50 (Living Product 50) companies committed to making transparency and optimization documentation publicly available, as well as reducing impacts with scientifically verifiable net-positive products, the group also includes other OHBA members such as Kohler, Cambria quartz surfaces, CertainTeed and Owens Corning.

A year ago, Rockwool, the world’s leading manufacturer of stone wool products, announced ambitious, science-based global decarbonization targets. Key elements included reducing factory greenhouse gas emissions by 38% and non-factory life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by 2034.

“At our facility in West Virginia, we have replaced coal as the energy source to melt that product with natural gas,” advises Chad Holmes, Director of Marketing & Brand Business Development at Rockwool’s Milton office. “We continue to look at that across all of our plants—not just how we can modify a product but how we make them, because at the end of the day this is a very energy-intensive operation that we have.

“Product-wise, the thing we’ve been focused on is material disclosures through the Declare labelling,” adds Holmes of the building products transparency tool that identifies all ingredients down to 100 ppm. “For us it’s critical, because more and more people are concerned with what’s going into their walls and homes.”


Although current software allows for a product’s LCA measurement almost immediately once you have assembled the necessary information, the more seriously you take the process—particularly if you are planning for public disclosure and third-party verification, the time and money mounts, Johnson admits.

“Six years ago, an environmental product declaration for a relatively simple product would be between $20,000 to $40,000 per product. That adds up pretty quickly,” he says. “As demand for these services increases, it’s lowering the price. But for early adopters such as ourselves, the price has been quite high. But sometimes that’s the price of leadership.”

Further, a typical EPD, depending on the product category, must be renewed every three to five years, “or once a product changes within a percent range,” Johnson notes. 

From a socio-economic calculation, however, the balance sheet clearly leans in favour of such certifications, Johnson stresses. “Think of the use of lead-based paint in homes and asbestos, which was very common until relatively recently. How do we take into account the true cost of those products on our health system, of remediation, removal and fixation, and the reduced value of those homes upon resale? Had we known, we would never have used those materials to begin with!”

But even from a corporate standpoint, the investment can financially pay off. “We have an acrylic product,” Johnson highlights. “For a very long time prior to these life-cycle analysis methodologies, we believed that having a high-recycled content would lower the environmental impact of that product, which is normally the case. But then we did an LCA and realized that going to an entirely virgin process to create that acrylic actually dropped our global warming index by 35% per sheet. The new product, Flek Pure, is 100% recycled material from our own in-house waste. It has won multiple awards throughout the industry this year. It’s saving us money on waste disposal and giving us a new platform to launch more sustainability products.”

Terra View Homes is among a handful of Ontario builders that has tried to stay ahead of the carbon curve. Builder of one of the first LEED Platinum-certified homes in Canada, Terra View was the recipient of the Energy Star for New Homes (Small/Custom Builder), as well as Net Zero Builder of the Year and Best Green Marketing Campaign at the recent EnerQuality Awards.

“We believe strongly in the disclosure of supply chain data and material/product selection based on lowest embodied carbon impacts based on the entire life cycle,” says Terra View founder and CEO Andrew Lambden. “We source our products/materials directly from local suppliers and always consider working relationships with local trade partners exclusively. And we’re leading by example when it comes to educating around green building, approaching vendor/supplier/partner selection and all other aspects to ensure that environmental impact is at the forefront.”


While builders and developers are mapping out their own environmental paths, so it is with the Ontario Architects Association. “We are just concluding a scan of the entire province of architects—to hear about their successes and challenges—and we have heard a cry for help to get better educated in all things climate change,” says president Susan Speigel, who is also a member of the OAA’s Sustainable Built Environments Committee. “We are also developing a database of all kinds of great projects looking at best practices as they happen.”

Getting all project stakeholders together early is critical to success, says OAA member Veronica Madonna, Principal of Studio Veronica Madonna Architect and Assistant Professor at RAIC Centre for Architecture at Athabasca University. “I think the supply chain problem had an impact on a lot of projects, but it’s a reason why it’s more important to really focus on the integrative design processes and engage with manufacturers and producers of materials, and to source local material products,” Madonna notes. 

Factoring in the durability of products versus their carbon footprint is another discussion. “Every application has its own unique characteristics,” Johnson explains. “And those characteristics need to be evaluated on long-term need. The problem is that we live in a short-term society. Your aluminum cladding may last for decades, but if someone else buys the home four years later and changes their siding, it doesn’t matter how sustainable your first choice was. So your embodied energy is automatically doubled at a minimum for recladding. So the intent in the decision-making process needs to be, ‘What will perform in the application for the foreseeable longest term?’” 

Is Johnson worried that the time and expense involved in this learning and adoption curve will deter builders and manufacturers, particularly at a time when expenses and delays are already mounting? “No, the opposite,” he says. “The pandemic woke us up with regard to human health, since people were confined to indoor spaces more often. It also provided us a break, the likes of which I have never seen in the industry. It’s been a time where architects, designers, contractors—everyone—took a pause and said, ‘I have always been interested in this—let’s find out about it.’ So the past two years have been insanely busy for me, trying to scramble to meet all the requests for education.”


So what do we need from government? “A lot,” says Johnson. “We absolutely must end subsidies for fossil fuels first, and transition all of that money immediately to renewable energy. That will buy us so much time to address the other causes of climate change. The only reason organic or sustainable materials are more expensive is because they are not subsidized to the degree of fossil fuels.

“We use materials for too short a time and they last too long a time in landfill,” adds Johnson. “In the built environment specifically, government should focus on having a taxation for both waste as well as carbon. By implementing that relatively simple methodology, we end the linear nature of extraction, consumption and disposal and make the disposal phase expensive. Recycling then has a new market, and manufacturers will design for reuse.”

Speigel believes in the power of human ingenuity as well. “Almost every great creation comes from a problem,” she says.

But while every stakeholder can play their own part, the road to carbon neutrality must be a collective investment, Speigel notes. “We have to redo the formula—not passing on the entirety of the cost of climate change and sustainability to the buyer, but also sharing it with government, city taxes, the builder and the developer.



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