The greenest office building is the one that doesn’t get built.
The act of tearing down an office tower to erect a new one in its place eats up a lot of resources and creates a lot of waste, said Colin Scarlett, an executive vice-president with Colliers International in Vancouver.
“Sometimes, the most sustainable thing is to do nothing at all,” he said in an interview last week.
That’s an idea echoed by other stakeholders and experts in the Vancouver property industry, who point to the value of renovating and greening existing office spaces in the city that has an emerging clean tech economy and strict building bylaws that are shaping a more sustainable stock of office space.
Reliance Properties and 564 Beatty Street
Reliance Properties is a Vancouver-based developer and landlord that claims a long history of restoring and rebuilding heritage buildings. “I think we have the largest portfolio of heritage buildings in Western Canada,” said president Jon Stovell last week.
One of their recent heritage renovations is at 564 Beatty Street in downtown Vancouver, a four-storey heavy timber and brick building put up in 1909, that Reliance bought in 2011.
The building sat mostly empty, serving as an occasional film shoot location, Stovell said. “It just seemed like a perfect building to convert and add to.”
Over the next 2.5 years Reliance renovated the building, adding four floors of glass and steel above the existing six floors of brick and timber and converting it into a boutique mixed-use office tower. The project did not require rezoning, and Stovell said they agreed to pursue a LEED Gold certification for the building.
The building is now a modern ten storey, 45,770 sq. ft. office that Stovell says is tenanted by a restaurant, law firm, tech company and contracting firm.
Reliance undertook the renovation as part of the city’s Heritage Revitalization Agreement (HRA) program. “Choosing to renovate that building allowed us to tap into close to $5 million worth of incentives from the city, which would not have been available had we gone with new construction.”
Instead of paying to rezone the property, the city “actually paid us to renovate and rehabilitate the building, and we ended up getting a ten-year tax holiday and grants and some other waivers”, Stovell said.
While renovation may be the ‘greenest’ solution for the built environment there is a growing number of newly constructed LEED-Platinum office buildings.
MEC’s new office building
In October 2014, Mountain Equipment Co-op opened a new headquarters at Great Northern Way in Vancouver. Designed to LEED-Platinum the building has become a model for office sustainability.
“It’s been a success in that everybody is talking about it and looking at what they glean from it and take to other projects,” said Hugh Cochlin a principal with Proscenium Architecture and Interiors, the firm that designed the building.
About 300 staff work in the four-storey, 112,000-square-foot glass, wood and steel building. It features natural lighting, geothermal heat, on-site water management and sensors that control window blinds and lighting.
Cochlin said a passive ventilation system acts as the “lungs of the building”, pulling in fresh air through three wind towers on the roof and exhausting used air out the same way. He said a blue roof captures rainwater and transfers it to an underground cistern for non-potable water.
Rain gardens and plants outside of the office filter water and run-off before it goes into the drain system.
Cochlin said the mechanical system is an important part of the building. “The [tenants] are not talking about the mechanical system and what that actually means is it’s working properly,” he said. “When you hear about people talking about how happy they are at work, that’s when you know you’ve had a success.”
While the MEC office was a new build, Cochlin agrees that renovating existing structures is often the first step in the greening of a city. “I have always believed that taking buildings and repurposing them is the way to go, not just tearing them down,” he said.
Converting C-class to a better building
Colliers’ office leasing expert Scarlett said he expects to see more older C-class buildings converted into B and boutique-A class buildings. “Rather than tear them down, [owners will] try to find alternative ways to generate higher returns in the same-sized building.”
He said the comfort and amenities of new office spaces are attractive to tenants, but very few companies outside of the real estate industry understand what LEED is. “Every single time that I go out on a walk with a client and you have a building owner or listing agent who talks about LEED, I have to… explain what it,” Scarlett said.
But that doesn’t mean tenants don’t care about sustainability or healthy work environments, he said. “Most tenants in the market will assume that a new building will have a lot of this stuff in it in any event, so the degree to which it is LEED certified is not actually as important as you might think it is, from a tenant’s perspective.”