Green Building columnist
John Lorinc is a Toronto-based journalist and author specializing in urban issues, business, and culture. He has written for various publications including The Walrus, The Globe and Mail and Spacing. John has won numerous National Magazine Awards.

Glass buildings have been singled out as climate disasters. Can they be reformed?

Tightening building standards could mean it’s curtain call for glass towers. Some innovators say otherwise.

They have become perhaps the most emblematic hallmarks of the fast-rising vertical metropolis of the 21st century: soaring towers, both offices and condominiums, draped in sheets of glass of varying hues, their gleaming facades sometimes punctuated by cursory balconies or, in other cases, sheer and implacable.

While the “glass curtain wall” – so-called because it is not load-bearing but rather hangs – is more than a century old, it has become an oft-copied high-rise design feature, as likely to appear on the skyline of Songdo, South Korea, as in Manhattan, Toronto or Vancouver.

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Pipe dreams and other climate visions

Capturing the billions of dollars of heat that goes down drains globally is one climate fix touted in David Miller’s new book

It started, as these things often do, with an irritant.

About a decade ago, Lynn Mueller, then in his mid-50s, had just retired from a run leading a geothermal firm. As he was casting about for his next act, Mueller noticed that his annual water bill had soared to more than $1,000 – a fact of domestic life he attributed to the presence of two teenagers. “Being a cheapskate,” he recalls with a chuckle, “I wanted to figure out how to get that money back.”

Leaning in, Mueller realized those dollars were literally flowing down the drain, in the form of hot water from showers, meaning, he knew, that the natural-gas-generated energy used to run the water heater was also going to waste.

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The push to pump fresh air into schools

Indoor air quality was always low priority, but COVID-19 presents an important opportunity to build healthier schools

Indoor air quality, according to Jeffrey Siegel, a University of Toronto professor of civil engineering, has long been regarded as the poor cousin of the sustainable buildings movement. “It has always been this incredibly neglected piece,” he says, pointing to the green-building design world’s laser focus on energy efficiency and the importance of creating more airtight structures.

Siegel’s expertise is in healthy buildings, and he is cross-appointed to U of T’s public health faculty. He points out that ventilation systems, which consume a lot of energy, tend to be neglected, particularly in institutional buildings, like schools.

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The blind spot of low-carbon buildings

Focusing on energy efficiency has blinded us to other unintended consequences of building materials–but a revolution is afoot

About a year ago, Canadian-born architect Kelly Alvarez Doran had an epiphany – or perhaps, more aptly, a wake-up call – about one of the core tenets of energy-efficient construction.

To design new buildings that truly move the needle in terms of reducing heat loss (a chronic problem in Canada’s older buildings in particular), architects have developed exterior walls with as many as 13 layers of insulating material. While these measures drive down energy consumption, carbon emissions and utility bills, they also come with a problematic backstory. After all, most state-of-the-art insulating foams, wraps and panels are made from petrochemicals. “We don’t understand the chemistry of what’s in the walls,” Doran says.

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The case for funding more affordable green housing

Sustainably designed affordable housing projects are increasingly critical to meeting climate and housing crises

In an urban landscape punctuated by glass condos and gleaming offices, the four city-owned parcels that have bobbed to the surface of Toronto’s anxious conversation about housing affordability are nothing to look at . . . for now. They are mainly parking lots with a few desultory municipal buildings, located within steps of suburban or downtown transit stops – all choice examples of “lazy land” in a city struggling mightily with real estate speculation and crushingly low apartment vacancy rates.

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Sealing the deal: The case for cladding leaky old highrises

Re-cladding 18-storey affordable housing unit will help make Ken Sobel Tower North America's first passive house retrofit

When Toronto council recently upgraded its climate change plan, one of its 2050 goals was cutting emissions by 40% for every building. With more modern structures, those reductions may be relatively straightforward to find. But for older brick homes and Toronto’s far-flung portfolio of 1960s-vintage high-rise apartments, owners and landlords will have to be far more aggressive in their planning for retrofits; merely installing efficient furnaces, solar panels and LED lights won’t cut it.

A critically important part of the solution lies in the so-called building envelope – the assemblage of brickwork, siding, windows, and balcony slabs that comprise what architects describe as the “skin” of a structure. Find a way to plug all the leaks – all the little nooks and crannies where draughts lead to over-use of heating or air-conditioning systems – and the fossil fuel reductions will follow.

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Out-of-the-box thinking spawns low-carbon construction revolution

Vancouver startup brings in former mayor to drum up business for certified low-carbon modular builds

Architects and contractors working in the far north, where the building season is short and the risk of water damage to building materials is high, have talked for some time about the transformative promise of modular construction.

Instead of slow on-site assembly, components like wall panels can be pre-fabricated in climate-controlled plants, then shipped and assembled quickly to prevent water damage and reduce the risk of thermal gaps.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Nexii Building Solutions, a Vancouver-based pre-fab materials firm that recently raised $10 million in venture capital and brought on Vancouver’s high-profile former mayor, Gregor Robertson, originates with a pair of inventors in chilly Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

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Five planet-saving building ideas we need to nail down in 2020

From heating offices with sewage energy to fast-tracking timber buildings, axing carbon must be the decade’s top trend

After years of inaction on climate change, the decade ahead has become the bracket in which humanity gets one last opportunity to at least contain the warming crisis. While mitigation efforts targeting transportation, industry and the energy sector remain mired in conflict, the world of buildings – responsible for about 40% of all carbon – offers vast and relatively uncontroversial opportunities to reduce emissions, create new jobs and produce more livable built environments. Here are five solutions that should be on every policy-maker’s radar.

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Oil Town building carbon neutral community powered by 100% renewables

Edmonton slowly erecting one of the world's largest purpose-built sustainable neighbourhoods

Given that Swedish eco-activist Greta Thunberg has shone a harsh light on air travel, there’s a certain cosmic elegance in the City of Edmonton’s ambitious plans for a 536-acre decommissioned airport site, just minutes from the downtown. Construction crews last year began working on the first phase of Blatchford, a master-planned, mixed-use community that will rise from the sprawling former tarmac over the next 25 years.

What distinguishes this brownfield project isn’t just the size (which happens to be roughly the same as Edmonton’s current downtown). When it’s completed, it will be one of the largest purpose-built sustainable communities in the world, according to municipal officials.

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Powerhouse building produces more energy than it needs

Norway's Powerhouse Brattørkaia isn’t merely a net zero office building – solar and deep-water energy make it energy positive

Last year, the City of Vancouver updated its green buildings regulations to require that all re-zoning applications meet either net zero or low-emissions standards, considered among the most stringent in Canada. The move, combined with incentives, has helped trigger a boom in the development of so-called “passive house” projects that use extremely low quantities of energy for heating and cooling.

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