It’s a Good Thing: Sustainability and real estate are now a package deal

Thanks to the climate change crisis, the environment is playing a bigger role in construction than ever before.

Credit: Nexii

Vancouver-based Nexii makes a low-carbon concrete alternative

Thanks to the climate change crisis, the environment is playing a bigger role in construction than ever before

This article was originally published in our March issue, before the COVID-19 pandemic came to Canada. 

When BCBusiness last caught up with venture capitalist Stephen Sidwell, it was the spring of 2014, and Sidwell had just brought in Christine Day as CEO of his new healthy frozen food startup, Luvo.

Less than a year later, following an infusion of cash from institutional investors, Sidwell had exited the business. “I had three companies sell in the same year,” he recalls. “And that set me up for retirement—or so I thought.”

As is often the case, you can’t keep a good entrepreneur retired. Sidwell, now 56, is back at it—this time with Nexii Building Solutions, which aims to take on another very traditional industry, and with a similarly high-minded purpose. “With Luvo, I was on a mission to help improve the health of Canada and the U.S.; with Nexii, I feel like I’m on a mission to try and help the climate,” says Sidwell from his Vancouver office, fresh off a five-week tour of the U.S., meeting with potential customers, developers and investors.

Stephen Sidwell, CEO of Nexii

Nexii’s product is a proprietary granite-like composite, Nexiite, which can be used in everything from foundations to roofs. Buildings are huge contributors to climate pollution—and concrete, an immediate competitor to Nexiite, emits 900 kilograms of carbon dioxide for every tonne of cement produced. Launched last January, Nexii has already raised $10 million from real estate heavies Beedie, Lotus Capital Corp. and Omicron, and it expects to have a second production plant operational in Squamish by July. (One already exists in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where Nexiite was first developed.)

Green building has been popular in B.C. for eons, but the commercial and office sectors—which Nexii is targeting—have been slow to catch on. With the cost of climate change now unavoidable, business has finally found religion. For James Cheng, sustainable building has been a tenet of faith for more than four decades. Still, the Vancouver-based architect of the Shangri-La, the Fairmont Pacific Rim and the “Amazing Brentwood” (the redeveloped Brentwood Town Centre) argues that true sustainability needs to reach far beyond discussions about a building envelope: “That’s what the government legislates. We feel that that’s not sufficient for true sustainability.”

Cheng takes a three-pronged approach: environmental, social and economic. “If you have a single-use building, like a single-family house or an apartment building, the resident only consumes energy; they don’t generate energy,” he notes. “But in a mixed-use situation, like we did at Brentwood, most commercial components generate a lot of heat because they have to use air conditioners.” Cheng repurposes that energy to heat water going to residents.

Perhaps Cheng’s most ambitious current project is The Stack, a 36-storey tower that will be Vancouver’s tallest office building when completed in early 2022. In addition to being “net zero” (see sidebar), The Stack fully embraces Cheng’s idea of social sustainability, with four stacked and rotated boxes splitting up the tower’s 36 floors, including six outdoor decks and a rooftop patio for office tenants. “It’s been proven now that if people are exposed to sunlight or daylight, they feel happier and generally healthier,” he says. “When we design projects, especially into the future, these are the things we think about.”

While Sidwell and Cheng come at the question of sustainability from different angles, both articulate a similar vision for where things are going. Sidwell says his ultimate goal with Nexii is to become “a global smart living buildings company—using solar for power generation, water conservation and waste treatment systems built into our buildings, smart home technology to manage it all.” Cheng takes the integration idea one step further. “With the advance of technology, and camera monitoring, many cities in Europe and Asia are starting to coordinate the services that people need and take it into a total system. To me, that is the future. When you design cities, it’s no longer just one thing happening; it’s a coordinated everything.”

Setting the Standard

Oxford Properties’ The Stack office tower—rising at 1133 Melville Street in downtown Vancouver—is one of 16 projects across Canada chosen to be part of a two-year pilot program for the Canada Green Building Council’s Zero Carbon Building Standard.

There are four key components to the standard:

1. Zero carbon balance

Thanks to clean, renewable energy on- or offsite, building operations yield no net greenhouse gas emissions

2. Efficiency

New projects consider peak energy and maximize energy efficiency, with an emphasis on building envelope and ventilation

3. Renewable energy

Developers incorporate onsite renewable power into new buildings, preparing them for a distributed energy future

4. Low-carbon materials

Carbon footprint of structural and envelope materials factor into design decisions

Source: Canada Green Building Council, Zero Carbon Building Standard