Business Climate: The push to decarbonize real estate is heating up

And Vancouver building owners are torn over emissions

By traditional business standards, it looked like a questionable idea.

It was 2014 and Cadillac Fairview, a national commercial real estate firm, was about to install a cutting-edge geo-exchange system. The project would involve drilling 30 boreholes 400 feet below the parkade at 777 Dunsmuir Street—a mixed-use tower built in 1990 in the heart of downtown Vancouver—and inserting a piping system that would help remove heat in  the summer and provide it in the winter.

The geothermal retrofit would reduce the nearly 200,000-square-foot building’s carbon emissions from heating by 85 percent. Still, the $2-million project was a tough sell, especially since it would take more than a decade to recoup the cost.

“People weren’t talking about carbon reduction and looking at these new, unique technologies for office buildings. And an 11-year payback? People wouldn’t even look at projects like that,” recalls Lillian Tummonds, Cadillac Fairview’s VP of office operations for Western Canada. “Our finance department was like, ‘No.’ But we said, ‘You know what? We want to be bold. We want to try out these new technologies.’”

At the time it was a lonely bandwagon, but now the push to decarbonize is rapidly gathering steam across North America. According to a City of Vancouver report, the burning of natural gas in buildings accounts for a whopping 57 percent of the total carbon emissions generated in Vancouver. And because of a new city bylaw that comes into effect this year, owners of large commercial properties are going to have to reckon with those emissions—and soon.

Under the bylaw—the first of its kind in Canada, and inspired by similar measures in cities like New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.—owners of buildings over 100,000 square feet must report their emissions starting June 1. Beginning in 2026, they’ll need to gradually limit those emissions to the point where, by 2040, all existing large office and retail buildings will be zero-emission.

To start, the regulations will only apply to existing office and retail buildings—roughly 200 in Vancouver—but the city is looking at expanding to other property types. Meanwhile, provincial rules require that all buildings constructed in 2030 or later be zero emission.

For the most part, owners have been accepting of the change, says Micah Lang, team lead for large existing buildings in the City of Vancouver’s sustainability group.

“These buildings are often occupied by large multinational companies that have set their own very high corporate sustainability goals,” says Lang. “So they’re looking to lease space and buildings that are also going to be decarbo­nizing.”

Kenneth McNamee, principal with Impact Engineering, has noticed a definite uptick in interest in decarbonization. His firm has worked on a host of major upgrades in Vancouver, including at St. Paul’s Hospital, Mount Saint Joseph Hospital and the Brock Fahrni Pavilion, where it achieved an 80-percent reduction in carbon emissions thanks to a heat recovery chiller, which captures warmth from exhaust air and uses it for heating and hot water.

Still, there are headwinds, he says. In large commercial buildings, HVAC and hot water are responsible for the lion’s share of emissions, and while the high-tech solutions—including heat pumps, heat recovery chillers and electric boilers—have moved in leaps and bounds, they still have a ways to go, and they require different installation and maintenance processes from those used for fossil fuel-powered systems.

Then there’s the cost. Retrofits regularly cost millions of dollars, and many buildings also have to undergo pricey electrical upgrades to power the new tech. Incentives from governments and utilities, as well as the federal carbon tax, are narrowing that gap, says McNamee, but bigger perks would help speed up the adoption of cleaner tech.

“It’s been proven on the residential side that if the incentives are there, people are motivated to make a positive change,” he says. “The carbon tax is a stick, but there should also be more carrots if the government wants to get more aggressive in terms of decarbonization.”

Tummonds agrees that cost is a big barrier to change. Supply chain woes and a high demand for equipment have also pushed up costs and made it tougher to complete upgrades.

All 11 of Cadillac Fairview’s Vancouver buildings, which together represent 4.4 million square feet, have been certified zero-carbon a full 16 years before the city’s 2040 limits kick in.

Tummonds says that in countries where climate change is having catastrophic effects, governments, the public sector and private businesses are all working together toward change. Now she hopes Canadians do the same before it’s too late.

“Heat domes and drought are going to make us pay attention,” she says. “But my hope would be that we don’t need to get into crisis situations for all of us to be pulling in the same direction.”