Growing Canada’s Green Building Movement From the Sidewalks Up: An Interview with Thomas Mueller

Thomas Mueller, Canada Green Building Council
Thomas Mueller, President and CEO, Canada Green Building Council

If you’re an architect, engineer, or developer working to create healthier and more efficient communities, then chances are you’re heading to Toronto this weekend.

A thousand or so of this nation’s green-building practitioners are flocking to the 416 for Building Lasting Change—the annual conference of the Canada Green Building Council. They’ll network, share best practices, and compare notes on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification, which the council oversees in Canada. With 2.5 billion square feet under certification globally, LEED is by far the most recognized green-building certification in the world.

We caught up with Thomas Mueller, the president and CEO of the Canada Green Building Council and the conference’s empresario, to learn about the the state of green buildings in Canada today.

Canada has more LEED-certified and -registered projects—more than 4,000—than any other country in the world outside the United States. Why is that?

It’s a combination of things. First, we have the longest history—we were the first ones to implement LEED outside the U.S., though China is now number three and gaining on us fast. There is also a Canadian mentality that supports it, there is a social and environmental conscience aspect to our culture that you maybe won’t find as much in other countries. Finally, we we have truly great architects and great designers—firms like Dialog, Perkins + Will, Bing Thom, and Diamond Schmitt, and also engineering companies like Integral Group and Morrison Hershfield. They really know how to do it right.

Where does the Canada Green Building Council’s money come from?

We generate our revenue through certification fees and memberships, we have 1,700 member organizations in the council. Then we have education programs, like LEED AP, and technical training. We have trained tens of thousands of people in green building practices. There are anywhere between 12,000 and 15,000 LEED-APs [accredited professionals] in Canada. Then there’s industry sponsorship and conferences. We are self-supporting.

To what extent do you interact with government? Are you policy advocates?

We actually do a lot of policy work. I just met with [British Columbia Environment] Minister Polak; I am meeting with provincial, local, and federal governments regularly as we do with industry leaders, to strengthen our advocacy and policy positions. All of the provinces have green-building policies, and most of them have specified LEED for their own buildings.

There are similar LEED requirements for government buildings in the United States, but special interest groups have been lobbying to replace them with the “softer” Green Globes standard. Is that a threat here?

I don’t see it as a threat. LEED has proven itself in the market—it offers a very good balance of stringency and achievability. You have to stretch, but it is achievable at a reasonable economic cost. It also has rigor in the certification, a quality assurance process. Green Globes doesn’t have that stringency and rigor; many parts of it are based on self-certification. You can see why certain types of industries that don’t want any change would support it. It does not represent a meaningful change.

Could weaker certifications somehow “dilute” the market for LEED?

If people think the Green Globes standard is just as good as LEED, well, they’re deceiving themselves. We have made a lot of progress in Canada in in improving the performance of buildings. Why would you want to dial it back? I would hope that the industry in Canada continues to see the opportunity for innovation rather than slowing it down.

The LEED-Platinum Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), UBC. Photo: Don Erhardt
The LEED-Platinum Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), UBC. Photo: Don Erhardt


To what extent does the green building market need policy support?

In Canada, the “soft” policy support is good enough. We continue to rely on the business case, which is different for each subsector of the industry. For commercial real estate—office buildings—the business case is easy to make, because it is about financing. The investors in these projects are pension funds, and the return on green office buildings is 10 to 13 percent. In multi-residential real estate, it is different. They want to sell units and be competitive in the marketplace. In Toronto, we have large developers that have been building to LEED Gold for years and selling right into the market at a competitive rate. In Vancouver, the developers didn’t do it until the city regulated them because they felt it was too expensive and difficult. They are doing it now, and it’s not a big deal.

You have quite a few international delegates coming to your conference, from places like Korea and China. Why is that?

There is a 10-plus year history in green building in Canada—in Vancouver and elsewhere we have really leading-edge buildings. They are coming here to learn from our experience and value our expertise in green building and community development. We get Chinese delegations all the time, and even delegations from Europe.

Wait, aren’t the Europeans miles ahead of us on buildings? What can they learn from Canada?

They have a lot of regulations around carbon and energy, but we approach it more holistically. There is a EU directive, a performance standard, that buildings have to meet. Office buildings, for example, have to use less than 100 kilowatt hours of energy per square meter. They are working to get it down to 50. Meanwhile, the average office building in Canada uses 320 or so kilowatt hours per square meter. That said, with LEED Platinum, we now have a whole range of buildings under 100. That includes Manitoba Hydro Place, the CIRS building at the University of British Columbia, and various other buildings across Canada—like the Earth Rangers building outside Toronto.

The LEED-Platinum Manitoba Hydro Place, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Photo: Manitoba Hydro
The LEED-Platinum Manitoba Hydro Place, Winnipeg, Manitoba. Photo: Manitoba Hydro


Does a LEED certification help sell a condo?

LEED has not yet hit awareness at the consumer level. We have a LEED for Homes program for low-rise homes—we have communities in Quebec of 500 to 1,000 certified homes. But the commercial sector and institutional buildings are really where the bang for the buck is.

Affordability remains a lead challenge for cities. Does LEED make sense for below-market housing, where the goal is to build as affordably as possible?

Green affordable housing is our litmus test. I believe people on the lowest income scale should have the most efficient apartments and homes to keep their energy costs down. Energy prices are not going to go down. If you design a home that uses 30, 40, or 50 percent less energy, then you have insulated yourself from fluctuating energy prices. I’d also add that we provide free certification to low rise affordable housing projects and Habitat for Humanity homes.

Do you lobby to strengthen building codes?

We support the National Energy Code for Buildings, but we see our role as industry to produce better and better buildings. More and more buildings built to a higher level of performance. We establish thresholds so when the government goes to revise the code, they say “My God, these can be built economically!” That pulls the code along. We have heard from the National Research Council—the keeper of the code—that our work has helped pull the code up. We are trying to push the market to what is possible. We are working to broaden the appeal of the movement. We just want to pull the top 25 percent up, and it will pull the rest of the market along with it.


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