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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.

How drones are heat mapping high-rise energy guzzlers

Drafty high-rises are the gas guzzlers of the building world and infrared drones are swooping in to spot costly energy leaks

It’s a fact of high-rise life that’s become all too familiar to legions of urban condo dwellers: many apartment buildings leak like sieves, with heating or cooling seeping out through poorly sealed windows, cracks and concrete balcony slabs.

Yet those construction flaws, in the aggregate, add up to something much larger and more problematic. By most estimates, buildings today account for about 40% of all carbon emissions, and therefore play a huge role in the accelerating climate crisis. We should be thinking of all those drafty apartments as if they were gas-guzzlers spewing carbon and other harmful gases into the atmosphere.

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Building innovation: Going green pays off for one of Canada’s Big 5 banks

Buildings account for roughly 20% of Canada’s carbon footprint - CIBC is banking on shrinking theirs

In the expanding world of energy-efficient commercial buildings, designer projects with LEED certification and cutting-edge architecture tend to win the awards and garner public attention. But a pilot project involving 30 lowly bank branches, most of them stand-alone buildings, has shown how smart interventions can reduce emissions and operating costs with a brisk payback period.

Keeping our buildings lit, heated and cooled accounts for 20% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. In some provinces, emissions from buildings are growing faster than every other source except transportation. If Canada is to meet its 2030 GHG targets, older buildings, which make up three quarters of this nation’s built form, will need to be retrofitted over the coming decade.

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Smart buildings: how AI is slashing heating and cooling bills

With artificial intelligence analytics and wireless sensors, buildings are growing smarter - and closer to zero footprint

In the nerdy world of smart thermometers, every self-respecting tech geek knows precisely how easy it is to undermine the intelligence wired into these devices: Just press the manual override.

For several years, the so-called HVAC industry – heating, ventilation, air-conditioning – has been turning out increasingly sophisticated programmable thermostats with a range of features designed to allow users to adjust a home’s temperature automatically (including smartphone apps that let users make changes remotely). However, the promised energy reductions and related savings associated with the set-and-forget features go right up the chimney when an occupant decides the dwelling is too hot, too cold or too stuffy, and intervenes. Depending on the device, the settings may not revert, paradoxically enabling all the carbon-wasting inefficiencies these devices were meant to prevent.

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The Canadian artists creating a better world

Top creators are flipping the script by mixing environment and ethics into mainstream entertainment

In the mid-2000s, with gravel quarry operators moving aggressively to carve huge aggregate mines out of southern Ontario’s limestone moraines, folk singer Sarah Harmer recorded a song titled, simply, “Escarpment Blues.”

If they blow a hole in the backbone

The one that runs cross the muscles of the land

We might get a load of stone for the road

But I don't know how much longer we can stand…

Harmer grew up near Mount Nemo in north Burlington – a dramatic craggy outcropping on the Niagara Escarpment, which is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. The damage being inflicted on the area’s delicate flora and fauna fired not just her indignation, but also her creative imagination.

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Race to the stars

Companies, regulators and investors are competing to get their hands on carbon emissions data from satellites.

Going back to his childhood, Stephane Germain, the founder of Montreal-based GHGSat, dreamed of figuring out how to pursue a career that combined space, technology and the profit motive. After completing his graduate work in engineering physics, he found himself drawn increasingly to both the world of commercial satellites and the scientific challenge of using specialized orbiting sensors to measure atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

But when the province of Quebec prepared to join California’s cap-and-trade system, “the light bulb went on,” Germain says. Cap-and-trade forces companies to buy credits for the right to pollute, which incentivises them to reduce emissions. Pondering the logic of such systems, he realized the province’s industrial emitters suddenly would be forced to manage their emission risk and therefore had a financial incentive to seek out better information about the carbon leaving their facilities. “I knew there was market demand,” he explains.

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Off to work

Making the commute easier for employees

When Québec’s financial services giant Desjardins decided to adopt a sustainability plan earlier in this decade, company officials began looking at a range of strategies, including programs to encourage the firm’s far-flung employees to get to work by means other than a private automobile with a single passenger.

It was an ambitious undertaking as Desjardins has hundreds of branches, head offices in both Montréal and Levis, outside Québec City, as well as satellites in Toronto and Mississauga, Ontario. Some locations are way off the transit grid while others are easily accessible. In a firm with 45,000 employees, the task demanded multiple solutions.

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Breaking the gas habit

Why a transition away from natural gas for home heating is both onerous and necessary

According to federal government data, fully two-thirds of all the energy Canadians use to heat their homes is supplied by natural gas and propane. For climate activists and building owners who want to decarbonize Canada’s building stock, that figure is, well, chilling. While natural gas is one of the cleanest burning fossil fuels, this statistic alone offers a bracing reminder that Canada remains a long way from the day when our housing stock is no longer responsible for a formidable share of the country’s overall greenhouse gas emissions.

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The e-bus revolution has arrived

The working horse of municipal transportation is on the cusp of rapid electrification across Canada.

Early in the fall of 2017, a dozen municipalities from around the world resoundingly signalled that the long-awaited electric bus revolution had finally pulled out of the station. The cities, whose ranks include London, Paris and Vancouver, released a declaration during a C40 Cities summit that after 2025, they’d only purchase zero-emission vehicles, including city buses.

Los Angeles County, one of the signatories, ordered 95 e-buses in the summer of 2017 for Metro, the region’s transit authority, while other cities will also move sooner, says Caroline Watson, the low-emission vehicle network manager for C40 Cities.

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Pricing property

The promise and peril of land value taxes

The craziness of Vancouver’s real estate market, now the subject of frantic political attention, has revealed a rare kind of metric in dense urban environments.

With offshore speculators buying residential properties specifically to knock down the existing home and replace it with something huge, the market – for all its distortions – has essentially disclosed the going market value of residential property. After all, when so many dwellings are considered to be knock-downs, the buyers are in effect zero-rating the buildings they’ve acquired.

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Intensification nation

Canadian cities, big and small, are working to densify themselves. It’s far from a straightforward path.

Vancouver these days has become a city fixated by the curbside view of its gold-plated residential real estate. As the city obsesses over stratospheric house prices, media accounts of shacks selling for seven figures and real estate industry scandals, British Columbia’s mega-city seems to have become a place beyond reach.

The view from the city’s hundreds of kilometres of rear laneways, however, is far less gloomy, and indeed offers an economically affordable and environmentally sustainable alternative. Ever since Vancouver council, in 2009, approved a policy encouraging the development of laneway housing, the city has seen the construction of about 3,000 of these cozy homes, most developed at the rear of the city’s standard 5,000 sq.ft. residential lots. They range in size from 600 to 1,000 sq.ft., and are either leased out by the owner or become second suites for older or younger family members. Some are all about style and energy efficiency, while others have the look and feel of traditional cottages.

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