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Net-positive buildings — why a green building isn’t what you think it is

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“We can’t address climate change without thinking about buildings.” -Bryn Davidson, Lanefab (Vancouver)

This is a line from a recent TEDx talk by Bryn Davidson, who is one of the founders of Lanefab out of Vancouver. Lanefab is a design and construction firm specializing in sustainable infill / laneway homes. Unlike Toronto, laneway houses are actually allowed in Vancouver.

If you have any interest in climate change, I would encourage you to watch his talk. It’s less than 20 minutes long and he addresses many of the misconceptions that I think people hold about what it means to build “green”. Click here if you can’t see it below.

While I think it’s great that the green agenda is much more front and center these days, I agree with Bryn in that we’re not yet on a sustainable path forward. For many people, being green means buying a LEED certified home, having a Tesla in the garage, and having a Nest thermostat on your wall. And certainly those things help.

But they’re not the whole story. Instead of just focusing on green and LEED buildings, Byrn argues that we need to take it a step further and start focusing on “Net Positive” buildings. In other words, ask yourself this: Will there be fewer green house gas emissions on the planet after your project is built?

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More specifically, he outlines 3 criteria:

  1. How good is your building?
  2. Where is it located?
  3. What does it replace?

The idea behind this framework is that the building itself (i.e. How good is your building?) is only one piece of the story. What also matters is its location and what it happens to be replacing. Is the building in a walkable area? Is it on a greenfield or infill site? Is it replacing an old energy inefficient building? Is it intensifying land use patterns?

All of these things matter when it comes to assessing our greenhouse gas emissions.

Let’s now apply this framework to three different building typologies: mid and high rise condominiums, and laneway houses. In the context of a Net Positive building, they all do quite well. In Toronto, we could certainly do a lot to improve the way many of our condo buildings are built, but they are usually in the right kinds of areas and they are the right kind of building typology.

Similarly, laneway houses as a whole are an incredibly sustainable building typology. In fact, I would argue that an energy efficient laneway house is easily one of the most sustainable homes you could build. They’re compact. They’re located on under-utilized and previously developed land. They often replace parking. And they increase population densities in established residential areas, which then makes transit more feasible.

But again, here in Toronto we’re not allowed to build them.

So whether you like it or not, if you’re involved in shaping the built environment, you’re also involved in climate change. This is a job for architects and developers, but also policy makers and communities. Laneway housing is a perfect example of that. Lots of people would build them — if only they could.

Image: Lanefab

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