Build SFU’s construction plans lack clarity on sustainability

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Watch the SFSS Town Hall meeting, November 27, 2014:

(The time stamps refer to this recording of the SFSS Town Hall meeting)

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At the SFSS Town Hall of November 27, 2014, the board of directors and Build SFU general manager Marc Fontaine were made aware of misconceptions surrounding the environmental responsibility of the two Build SFU construction projects. Many students, including some involved in the SFSS and Sustainable SFU, seem to be under the impression that the buildings would meet the highest standard in sustainability, a falsity which the board resolved to ensure clearer communication about. (51:00)

In a December 2 post on the official Build SFU Facebook page, students were told that the Student Union Building (SUB) “is being designed to be as sustainable as possible, and will be built to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold standards.”

However, even within LEED guidelines, Gold is not “as sustainable as possible.” The highest standard is Platinum, which Fontaine stated would be too difficult or too expensive to achieve given the scale and location of this project. (48:05)  With planning already under way, the sustainability of the 2500-capacity stadium “hasn’t [yet] been discussed,” according to Fontaine. (32:55)

In addition to this evident lack of clarity on the issue of Build SFU’s sustainability, let’s explore what LEED Gold standard actually means. LEED is a point-based rating system for environmentally friendly (or ‘green’) building. To achieve points, LEED customers select from a range of sustainable features and practices in construction and building usability. While LEED is certainly a step in the right direction, many have raised concerns about LEED as a sufficient answer to environmental degradation.

‘Green’ building has become a trend to sell unnecessary construction to the environmentally-conscious.

Often, the points system favours high-tech ‘gizmos’ over practical, tried-and-true considerations such as selection of construction materials and strategic architectural design. Once construction is completed, the energy efficiency of a LEED-certified building depends entirely on the proper use of technology by unregulated building users; this often results in LEED buildings with energy costs and outputs equal to or worse than conventional buildings. Studies have estimated that LEED buildings have, at best, 25-30 per cent more energy efficiency than traditional buildings, but different methods of data evaluation actually put many LEED buildings at 29 per cent lower efficiency.

It’s also worth noting that, according to UNEP, approximately one-third of greenhouse gas emissions may be attributed to the construction and operation of buildings, and Prism Environment, based out of the UK, states that construction material constitutes over one-third of landfill waste. We also need to consider the sources of building materials. Even replacing an old building with one built to new standards of sustainability is of questionable value, as it can take decades to offset the environmental impact of construction.

‘Green’ building has arguably become a trend to sell unnecessary construction to environmentally-conscious communities — you may have heard some variation of the phrase “the greenest building is the one that doesn’t get built.” At the Special General Meeting on January 21, students may decide to proceed with Build SFU; ideally, they will do so with full awareness of the impact of their decision, which in the future we hope the SFSS, Sustainable SFU, and Build SFU will facilitate.