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Condo firms aim to build momentum



April 22, 2009

Don't discount the "green" condo as just an expensive prerecession fad.

Powerful voices - and laws - are sustaining the move to energy-efficient buildings, even as construction in general is slowing down. Particularly for Canada's largest city, there is a strong opportunity to shape the green trend born during the housing boom.

Late last year, the city adopted the Toronto Green Standard for building design and landscaping. It is designed to improve air quality, cut emissions, reduce urban "heat island" effects, improve energy and water efficiency, reduce garbage, preserve natural areas and cut light pollution. It takes effect in September.

Meanwhile, the Green Energy Act was introduced in the Ontario legislature in late February, and includes measures to expand renewable energy production, and encourage energy conservation. These measures, together with the economic downturn, means there is an even stronger case for green buildings, says David Miller, mayor of Toronto.

"It's not going to compromise the green initiative, because green saves you money," Mr. Miller said. "Sometimes it takes a little bit more of an investment, but the operating costs are less. It makes direct financial sense to build it green."

It has been more than five years since the Tridel Group of Companies, a large Toronto-based builder, committed to meeting LEED environmental specifications, said Michael Smith, director of development planning. Tridel's first green building, Element, was launched in 2003, and uses the Enwave deep lake water cooling system.

Since this building was launched, green buildings have become popular among buyers, who are looking for more than just more trees on the grounds, said Mr. Smith.

"Initially it was more of a marketing issue," said Mr. Smith. "But ... savings for energy management offset the additional cost for construction."

An online database for the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green building rating system shows 33 registered (awaiting certification) and two already certified high-rise residential buildings in Toronto alone, with others scattered around the greater metropolitan area. By comparison, Vancouver has registered nine high-rise residential buildings and 20 mid-rises. Montreal has four mid-rise residential buildings registered for LEED.

Toronto is a leader in large, environmentally conscious residential buildings, but the business model should work anywhere, as people look to pinch pennies in a downturn, said Tom Rand, who is spending about $3-million developing an abandoned building in the trendy Kensington Market neighbourhood into a state-of-the-art environmentally friendly hotel, called Planet Traveler.

"I don't think the economic downturn makes this less appealing. Everybody's hurting. But if a project has an economic argument, it will go on," he said.

With oil at low prices, and no carbon regulation in place, the cost savings for green buildings aren't as high as they will be down the road, he said. But one day, the industry will be put to the test, and true green buildings will save their owners and occupants money, whereas "greenwashed" buildings will be exposed as hype, predicts Mr. Rand.

There is a preconceived notion among builders and the public that going green costs extra money, said Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. "But by not doing it, it's costing you more in the long run."

New builders of green condos should provide estimated energy bills before a purchase agreement is signed, he added. While Toronto is a leader in the green space, it could be even better if its government grants were more accessible, Mr. Hartmann adds. A recent study by his organization found the process for obtaining grants for green initiatives is complex and laborious, and some developers didn't bother.

Mr. Miller said he believes this criticism was "misguided," and that the city has trained staff who are still relatively new to the programs.

Also frustrating for the developers: many green cities hold their building accountable to LEED, but Toronto is going one step forward and making its own rules, notes professor David Amborski at Ryerson University's School of Urban and Regional Planning.

"It's a lot of red tape, developers encounter that in many areas. Here, the engineers want to have their own system," said Mr. Amborski. Even so, the city is making good efforts to tackle environmental concerns at the condo level, and is succeeding over all, he said. Mayor Miller says that the city accepts the LEED standard and is taking it one step further, to adapt it to the mega-city.

"There is more to building green than the building itself," Mr. Miller said. "[What] if you stick it surrounded by parking lots in a neighbourhood without transit? You want a tall condo on the transit grid.

"We ask for more. It's not just about building green buildings, it's about building a green city, a city that's sustainable."

Theresa Ebden is an associate producer at Business News Network

As published at: http://business.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20090422.SRGREENCONDOSART1951/TPStory/

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