Insights from Vancouver: Decarbonising our Built Environment

Earlier this year, I embarked on a research trip which was awarded by the Byera Hadley Trust on behalf of the New South Wales Architects Registration Board in Australia. I chose to visit a range of inspiring cities around the world who are paving the way to de-carbonise our built environment. This will feed into a report I am writing which endeavours to explore the role architects, policymakers and the wider construction industry play in reducing the carbon footprint of our cities.

My first stop was Vancouver, BC, where I gathered insights from a variety of perspectives including architects, government bodies, builders, developers and not-for-profit organisations who are all working towards this common goal.

I was blown away by the leadership that has been shown from grassroot initiatives all the way up to provincial regulation and municipality by-laws. All of which are united in addressing building performance, not just from an energy-efficiency perspective but in terms of health and wellbeing too. There is a definite paradigm shift being made from the notion of just sustaining what we currently have today, to creating the resilient cities that we so desperately need tomorrow.

In addition to a plethora of in-depth detail around the mechanisms and strategies used to achieve this, the key takeaways from my week in Vancouver have been:

We need to join the ‘right’ dots

A holistic, multi-scalar and interdisciplinary approach is required. This is not a race that can be won alone, it will take the whole economy. We need to find the right individuals in private practice, government bodies and institutional organisations, as well as in the supporting sectors that will act as champions for positive change. ZEBx (the Zero Emissions Building Exchange) is Vancouver’s dedicated organisation that acts as Centre of Excellence, initiating knowledge exchange and partnerships between the local industry, municipalities, researchers, trades, suppliers and industry professionals who are dedicated to decarbonising the building sector. The Pembina Institute also works in this manner, but focus on analytical research to support and advise policymakers across Canada.

The right dots also need to be joined at a micro scale within the building sector — from the selection of materials to the construction methodologies we utilise. Throughout British Columbia, there has been a dramatic push to integrate prefabricated timber construction in order to decrease the carbon footprint of buildings from the outset whilst increasing the quality and efficiency of the building process. We must adopt new technologies, rethink our processes and find innovative ways to deliver high-performance, resilient buildings.

Mass timber construction, light-weight panelisation and volumetric modular options are becoming the delivery method of choice across BC. Built-to-rent MURBs (Multi-Unit Residential Buildings) in the social and affordable housing sector, as well as commercial and institutional developments, are all taking advantage of the onsite speed, quality control and reliability of these prefabricated building methodologies.

Community is everything

As an industry, we need to come together to support each other through new challenges. This was most evident when I attended one of the sold-out event organised by Passive House Canada. The energy, encouragement and support for the design, construction and consultancy teams who were openly sharing the ups and downs of the journey of their project so far, was truly remarkable. A little recognition and a bit of moral support never goes astray, especially when taking on new challenges around dealing with a performance standard that the current building code doesn’t (yet!) meet. In this case, it was the Passive House Standard, which has been heavily incentivised by the City of Vancouver due to its alignment with goals of their Greenest City Plan. This stipulates that all new buildings are required to meet the Net-Zero Energy standard by 2030. A bold and ambitious target, but one they are confident can be achieved with a clearly defined pathway.

Less competition and more knowledge sharing

“Growing the pie so everyone’s piece gets bigger” was a quote raised on numerous occasions. The opportunities will continue to exponentially grow in the ‘green building’ sector as has already been experienced in Vancouver, with professional and trade skills rising rapidly to deliver zero-energy buildings and supply chains for high-performance building components strengthening by the day.

The City of Vancouver had just one dwelling that met the rigorous Passive House standard in 2014, but by 2018 they had clocked over 2500, either completed or approved. Currently, 1 in 5 new rezoning developments are being designed and constructed to the Passive House standard. This is a testament to the leadership that is being shown by local government — which in turn is a testament to the influence that the industry has had from the ground up due to their own leadership and tenacity in the first place.

Transparency and the dissemination of knowledge, insights and lessons learned is the key. Regular industry events and training sessions are hosted across Vancouver, supported by the municipalities and their industry partners such as Passive House Canada, ZEBx, the Pembina Institute, BC Institute of Technology and a whole range of private organisations. Individual success and growth will be severely limited if we operate in silos.

Be true to your values

Don’t just do what the current market demands. This was the common value that everyone I spoke to shared, no matter what their background is. If you know it won’t stand the test of time and enhance the lives of the people who will live in it, then it is our duty of care to put our foot down. The world over, there are an increasing amount of reports of severe overheating in fully glazed apartments blocks that have no shading provisions for example. Last summer people were forced to find alternative temporary accommodation across Vancouver as severe heat waves were experienced. This is evident in Australia without even needing to read a report. The amount of foil being placed in windows across Sydney and Melbourne is just more evidence of similar issues we are facing in our own cities. Climate change is most certainly linked to health and quality of life of every inhabitant.

We, as an industry, need to make responsible decisions about the buildings that are being designed and constructed on behalf of the occupants of our cities. We must put their future wellbeing at the heart of what we do. As an architect, I feel quite strongly about this, as our foothold and role within the industry will be severely threatened if we don’t follow our profession’s basic code of conduct — to protect the consumer.

To conclude…

There is so much to learn from others who have already taken the first steps towards achieving the targets set out by the Paris Agreement and make a positive contribution to our current and future generation’s lives. There is a long road ahead for Australia, and with only a small window to act, we are all faced with unprecedented challenges. The key is to view these challenges as opportunity. Unprecedented opportunity.


I would like to say a very special thank you to the following individuals in B.C. for being so incredibly generous with their time, insights and advice.

Rob Bernhardt, Ayla Collins and Jennipher Shihundu / Passive House Canada

Mark Bernhardt / Bernhardt Contracting

Chris Higgins, Patrick Enright, Sailen Black / the City of Vancouver

Karen Tam Wu / Pembina Institute

Jessica Williams, Christian Cianfrone / ZEBx (Zero Energy Building Exchange)

Shaun St-Amour / 475 High-Performance Building Supplies and BC Institute of Technology

John Hemsworth / Hemsworth Architecture

Matheo Durfeld / BC Passive House

Cillian Collins / Perkins + Will

Tom Faliszewski / Metric Modular

Jennifer Cutbill / Local Practice -

Clayton Blackman / LWPAC+IC

Scott Kennedy / Cornerstone Architecture


This research was made possible by the Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship awarded through NSW Architects Registration Board, Australia.

Author: Kate Nason
Categories: News