How to make green building a no-brainer: Lessons from Vancouver

Skeena Passive House
© Cornerstone Architecture/ 388 Skeena, Canada's largest Passive House apartment

A few years ago TreeHugger reviewed Emily Talen's wonderful book CITY RULES: How Regulations Affect Urban Form and learned how rules are what make cities. I noted that "It makes totally clear that architects and designers don't determine how small or big or what form to make our houses, the rules do. And those rules are often arbitrary, capricious and stupid." Having walked through Fremont, north of Seattle, recently I saw how stupid and capricious rules can be.

But rules can also be good things. Green building is often more expensive than conventional building, but there is another price to pay in addition to construction costs; extra insulation and equipment can eat up floor area, and on narrow urban lots that can seriously affect house design. In condos, where apartments commonly sell for a thousand bucks a foot in Vancouver, a mechanical room can cost a fortune in lost saleable area.

At the Passive House Northwest conference in Olympia, Washington, Green building planner Chris Higgins explained how Vancouver is serious about reducing its carbon footprint and the city wants to promote green building. In their passive house guidelines, the City explains:

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from buildings account for nearly 55% of GHG emissions in Vancouver. Reducing building energy use through rigorous building envelope design like that of Passive House buildings (instead of relying on more complicated mechanical means), presents a powerful and relatively straightforward opportunity to reduce future GHG emissions from buildings.

Lucio Piccciano's houseLloyd Alter/ Lucio Picciano house/CC BY 2.0

So Vancouver got really clever and creative in its zoning bylaw; if you want to build a house to passive house standards, (like Lucio Picciano's house shown above) they take into account that the walls have are much thicker because of insulation. They cannot reduce side yards, (people have to still be able to get through) so they reduce the rear yard requirement to let the homeowner pick up the lost area. Since insulation in the roof is so much thicker, they relax the height limit a bit. It isn’t a huge variance, but enough to allow the owners of Passive Houses to enjoy as much floor area as the conventional house.

For multiple family buildings that need a rezoning (and most do) going green is a basic requirement. It can be LEED Gold, Passive House or R-2000, a Canadian standard. According to Scott Kennedy of Cornerstone, a Vancouver architecture firm Passive House makes a lot of economic sense; in multiple family building the ratio of surface area (the expensive part in Passive) is much smaller so the costs are only about four percent higher than conventional construction.

Meanwhile the operating costs for heating and cooling should go way down. There has to be a closet for the heat recover ventilators that takes up a fair amount of saleable area, but the City of Vancouver exempts it from the floor area.

In urban real estate development what matters, what has value, is the permissible square foot. To the developer and builder, what matters next, what determines income, is the saleable square foot. The city uses its leverage in rezoning to get greener buildings with lower carbon emissions; in single family houses, it encourages greater efficiency with zoning relaxations.

mayor gregorLloyd Alter/ Mayor Gregor Robertson and Passiv Ninja Jedi Monte Paulsen in front of backyard house/CC BY 2.0

Throw in their great policies and guidelines on back lane housing and you have one of the most interesting, progressive and productive zoning systems anywhere. Rules matter, and they have developed some of the best in Vancouver.

How to make green building a no-brainer: Lessons from Vancouver
Rules really matter, and the city uses them to encourage the right kind of building.

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