Environment Committee weirdness regarding LEED certification of city-owned buildings

By Aya Helal

The first Environment Committee meeting of 2013 dropped a bomb-shell that could lead to a step backward in the City’s commitment to promoting and implementing green building practices. City Councillor Diane Holmes submitted a motion, after the idea was first suggested by Councillor David Chernushenko, to abandon the Leadership in Energy and Environment Design (LEED) accreditation process administered by the Canada Green Building Council (CGBC).

The City of Ottawa adopted a Green Building Policy for the Construction of Corporate Buildings - Corporate Policy on Sept. 28, 2005 requiring it to build new city-owned buildings (over 500 square metres in size) to ensure LEED certification. Indeed, the city back then committed to targeting LEED Silver certification so new city owned buildings would be designed to save energy, produce lower greenhouse gas emissions, use less water and other resources, and provide a high quality indoor working environment.

At the Jan. 15, 2013 meeting city staff gave an update on the progress that has been made in terms of having been able to achieve LEED standards for almost all the city's newly constructed buildings. Case in point the Ottawa Paramedic Service Headquarters exhibited an over 40% reduction in water consumption and 75% diversion of construction waste. In addition to the Goulborn Recreation Complex Expansion which achieved a LEED Silver standard and among many features exhibited reduced energy and water consumption.

After city staff presented the progress and leadership that the City of Ottawa has shown in constructing LEED-certified buildings, Councillor Cherunshenko expressed skepticism in the value of city staff spending too much time on documentation related to LEED certification and wasting money on submission fees to achieve only a plaque from the CGBC indicating the LEED standards had been achieved. To that end, city staff made it clear that the LEED certification is “ much more than just a plaque on the wall, it is a third party validation that sets an example…” and that more importantly the City of Ottawa is doing this from a “leadership perspective.”

Councillor Holmes showed frustration with regards to the progress made in the number of buildings becoming certified, saying the city has had to wait four to five years to get LEED approval and as a result asked “what was the point?....why bother?” with the LEED certification process and referred to it as “nonsense” and ultimately suggested that the City of Ottawa should either “steal” the LEED standard or come up with its own guidelines and call it the “City of Ottawa building council approval.” At this point a motion supported by the Environment Committee vice-Chair Scott Moffat was initiated to abandon the LEED certification process altogether.

Councillor Holmes presented a motion which claimed that the City of Ottawa is not successful in its application process, and since the City of Ottawa is reaching LEED Gold standards anyway the City should not hinder green building progress by following a time consuming and costly accreditation process. The motion was met with approval by everyone on the committee and in fact was applauded by Councillor Allan Hubley.

Then Councillor David Cherunshenko effectively backtracked from the comments he made earlier in the meeting and said “that the frustration over the cost of the accreditation and the timeline associated is going to lead us to an ill-advised motion” and mentioned that it took “several decades for experts to come up with the LEED green standards” and if the City of Ottawa will come up with its own standards it could take similarly years and “borrowing or stealing somebody else's guidelines is illegal”. Councillor Cherunshenko mentioned that abandoning theLEED certification process could see the City of Ottawa “indulge in greenwashing.”

There was no hiding the fact that city staff were confused by this abrupt and rushed motion which was not given enough time to even consider the legality of copying LEED's guidelines. Ultimately what was understood by City Staff is to forgo the LEED accreditation process but instead adopt a self-driven process based on the current green-guidelines already adopted by the City and in addition to rely on “building awareness”.

After an abrupt recess to wordsmith the motion it was presented as follows:

The City's green building policy be amended so as to no longer require application for LEED certification and that the City continues to deliver green building projects that meet the intent of the LEED criteria with annual status by the staff to the Environment Committee.”

Unfortunately, the motion was passed unanimously.

The Canada Green Building Council reacted swiftly, having been blind-sided by the Environment Committee’s Motion, and communicated the following important facts:

The recent motion made during the City of Ottawa Environmental Committee meeting on Wednesday, January 16, has not been approved by Council.

It is clear that the motion was carried based on an uninformed assumption of the value of certification, the cost and the time and process in which it is undertaken by CaGBC. This assumption was also formed based on the flawed report (see below) that was presented in the meeting.

Regarding the time and process to certify:

Regarding the time required to certify, the report put forward to the committee contained a number of factual errors regarding the status of City of Ottawa projects. Out of the 14 projects that were reported to be with CaGBC for review, five have not yet been submitted for review, four are back with the City or the City’s consultant for second stage review, and two have since been certified. In actuality, only three City of Ottawa projects are currently in review with the CaGBC .

The CaGBC acknowledges that there have been some past certification review delays at the Council; however, in late 2011, the CaGBC announced it was streamlining the LEED certification process with the goal of reducing the time required for certification to six months. Significant progress has already been made.

Regarding the value of certification:

LEED certification is a rigorous, internationally-recognized green building rating system that ensures buildings are built to the same standards to which they are designed. The plaque demonstrates leadership in your community, but without certification itself, the building owner loses the assurance that the building has met their goals for sustainability. LEED is being successfully used in over 100 countries which speaks to the quality and relevance of the LEED rating system. Many cities have adopted LEED including Washington, DC which has one of the most demanding green building programs.

Regarding cost of the process:

LEED buildings demonstrate ongoing cost savings through energy and water use reduction. LEED also delivers health benefits and broader environmental benefits. For example, studies have demonstrated improved indoor air quality, higher productivity in employees, fewer sick days and reduced absenteeism. Green buildings also reduce demand on infrastructure services e.g. water, waste disposal, wastewater treatment.

Regarding building ‘to LEED standards’ only

If the City were to amend its requirement to build to LEED certification standards, and instead opt to only “meet the intent of the LEED criteria” as stated in the motion, it would be a serious step backward for a city that has been demonstrating leadership in sustainability.

Building to LEED standards without certification eliminates accountability and removes transparency, which is not in the best interest of tax payers.

In conclusion, Ecology Ottawa believes that without some enforcement mechanism, the argument the City of Ottawa will ‘build to’ LEED but not certify is almost worthless. Without some kind of rigorous validation, how will the design team and the contractor be held accountable? It is important for Ottawa to continue to seek LEED certification from a neutral third-party accreditation body, such as the Canada Green Building Council.

Although there are costs associated with LEED, the reduced operating costs, reduction in materials going to landfill, and the health and productivity gains from City employees in those buildings provide a stellar return on investment.

Ottawa could learn a lot from Vancouver when it comes to displaying leadership on environmental issues. Vancouver is now requiring that any properties that require rezoning (assuming they meet size thresholds) meet LEED Gold standards.

This Motion was ill-conceived, poorly thought out and if endorsed by Council would further weaken Ottawa’s already weak commitment to ensuring energy efficiency improvements in Ottawa’s built environment.

LEED certification is playing a huge role in the commercial building sector in Ottawa. Certified green space not including Government buildings has grown by 375% in Ottawa in the last two years (Q1 2010 3.7 milion-12 million in Q1 2012). The private sector sees the value in LEED certification why not the City of Ottawa?

Everyone who voted in favour of this Motion on the city’s Environment Committee deserves a big thumbs-down… but, it is important to note that at City Council's Jan. 23,2013 meeting many of these councilors took the right step and backed down. On Jan. 23, it was agreed that this issue be referred back to the Environment Committee to give city staff, industry leaders and the wider community the opportunity to provide a more detailed explanation of the costs and benefits of LEED certification, and building green, in general. Councillors Holmes and Chernushenko voiced support for a full discussion to be had to better understand the benefits of the LEED building standards. However, Councillor Desroches, who despite agreeing that the motion may have been abrupt, appeared to voice support for abandoning the LEED accreditation process since, he says, the city should not be doing it just to “feel good” but instead should invest the money otherwise designated for the LEED certification process into incorporating more green building elements into city-owned buildings. City Council’s motion to refer the issue back to the Environment Committee for some sober second thought was moved by Maria McRae, seconded by Diane Holmes, and approved by the Mayor and all Councillors except for Peter Clark, who deserves a big thumbs down for rejecting the referral. Clark claimed LEED certification was “useless” because the City of Ottawa follows LEED guidelines anyway.

Background info:

The City of Ottawa's Green Building Policy for the Construction of Corporate Buildings - Corporate Policy (passed Sept. 28, 2005)


The City of Ottawa’s 2012 Green Building Promotion Program – Full Report


More information on green buildings in Ottawa


Green buildings owned by the City of Ottawa


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