Along with partners extending to the U.S. southern border and East Coast, managers of large-scale buildings in the Capital Region have been decarbonizing their operations in a push to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Many of the local structures that are transforming their energy systems belong to the Greater Victoria chapter of the District 2030 Network – a group of property managers from 23 North American cities that are sharing resources to help the built environment achieve zero emissions by 2040.
Twelve property managers in Greater Victoria manage 38 buildings representing 3.8 million square feet of Victoria or Saanich-owned commercial space and government facilities such as various town halls and Federation Square.
Greater Victoria 2030 district manager Cora Hallsworth said the local focus was on existing buildings because they were more difficult to reduce emissions and energy use than new builds.
“In order to achieve zero-carbon energy, our existing buildings need to change dramatically,” Hallsworth said.
District 2030 helps property managers conduct greenhouse gas and energy assessments to understand where they stand and what they can do to meet their emissions reduction goals. There are many retrofit and fuel switch options available, Hallsworth said.
Costs and the pandemic causing managers to prioritize getting their tenants back have created some short-term hurdles, but Hallsworth said the energy transition still has a lot of traction as operators see potential for cost savings.
Buildings account for the majority of Victoria’s total greenhouse gas emissions, with natural gas being the city’s largest emitter fuel type. Natural gas uptake in the city also increased.
“Connecting more to gas is definitely the wrong direction. We want to have less,” Hallsworth said, adding that while Fortis rebates make gas attractive, the buildings are locking themselves into the fossil fuel system.
Amid a range of climate change impacts already seen, Hallsworth said it was particularly important to advance the use of electric heat pumps in residential areas so people could be cooled in summer and windows could be closed when smog events lead to poor air quality.
“In the long run, anything that reduces our emissions will make everything better and improve our resilience,” she said.
The local 2030 district aims to accommodate a wide range of real estate types, and the local wants to bring in smaller buildings that may lack the resources to develop a decarbonization plan.
While the heritage façade remains intact, changes to the Hudson River have reduced reliance on fossil fuels. The former department store, which has about 120 apartment units above the Victorian Public Market, was refurbished about a decade ago to use a geothermal floor circulation system to meet its energy needs.
The system harnesses the energy of the earth and combines a series of water pipes, heat exchangers and pumps to distribute heat throughout the building, or reverse equipment to provide cooling during hot weather. It is also complemented by natural gas boilers that come on during periods of peak energy demand, such as when residents get ready in the morning.
“The main decision to go with geothermal cycling was to decarbonize our buildings and create more renewable options for our buildings,” says Brett Saget, passive house and sustainability specialist at Townline, which owns Hudson.
Because energy is produced on-site, Saget said the facility will consume far less than similar properties, and it will likely generate fewer emissions than a theoretical structure built to minimum standards in 2020.
“When we decided to go the geothermal route, it was an emerging technology and we wanted to try again to reduce our overall reliance on electricity or gas,” he said. “It will certainly take the load off the building itself and we will reduce our reliance on natural gas boilers.”
The geothermal aspect adds complexity to the Hudson project, but Townline says it will apply the newfound efficiencies to its future construction.
The Bay Center is also a member of the Greater Victoria 2030 District – which has been hailed as a model for commercial spaces after reducing overall emissions and energy use by 30% between 2011 and 2019.
When the Bay Center was built in 1989, its only heating component was heat from the lights. General manager Darlene Hollstein said she was most proud of updating their lighting system to a more efficient system with automatic timers, as the change was a major contributor to energy savings.
The goal is to reduce the environmental impact, the manager said, but if increased efficiency helps lower retailers’ bills and makes customers happier, that’s an added bonus.
“Consumers today are more concerned about sustainability, so sharing these bonuses with them tends to bode well for consumers, and at the end of the day, it’s a savings for everyone,” Hollstein said.
In recent years, the center has been increasing water use but has achieved other reductions through initiatives such as using low-flow options to reduce water use and installing new roof and window membranes to help conserve energy used for temperature regulation.
The outlet also seeks to lower its landfill contribution as it converts thousands of kilograms of cooking oil waste into biofuel each year, sorts recyclables for recycling and donates them to non-profit organizations, making the Children’s Hospital Fund will benefit and host a second-hand clothing exchange.
Bay Center is currently preparing to add 10 electric vehicle charging piles, upgrade the chiller system, and increase garbage diversion efforts.
David Bristow of the University of Victoria researches the built environment and its relationship to the goals of reducing emissions, sustainability and climate-related risks.
Even if emissions drop to zero overnight, buildings and infrastructure will still need to adapt to climate stressors and the onslaught of greenhouse gases emitted so far, says the associate professor of civil engineering.
“We don’t want things to get worse, so we need to reduce carbon emissions,” he said. “If our goal is to make the most efficient use of our resources and have our buildings function the way we are used to and enjoy them the way we are used to, the reality is that we must both mitigate and adapt.”
Researchers are helping District 2030 create a tool to support decision-making around climate risk in buildings. It is hoped that property owners or managers can use this tool to help isolate and prioritize risks to their property. This resource will also suggest some low-carbon pathways that can help reduce these risks.
“It’s a tool that we’ll be piloting in the Greater Victoria 2030 region, but hopefully it can be replicated elsewhere in British Columbia,” said Local Network’s Hallsworth.
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