Green Building Trends 2021: How Canadian Construction is Changing

January 6, 2020

Ask about the top trends in Canadian construction these days and you’ll hear the same thing over and over: smart buildings, smart buildings and smart buildings. Find out how some inventive new approaches to design are helping reduce heating and cooling costs and lowering the climate impact of commercial buildings and offices.

When we talk about “smart buildings” we’re usually referring to IoT integration: network-integrated AI assistants, fridges that tell you when you’re nearly out of rocky road ice cream, and the utopian/dystopian experiments in mechanical nursemaiding going on in these high rises. But being smarter about buildings is also about changing the way we choose materials and production methods.

Climate change awareness is on the rise, and builders and regulators alike are making serious moves to reduce the carbon footprint of commercial and industrial construction. By some estimates, roughly ⅓ of global energy end use is associated with buildings (pdf). In Canada, office buildings suck up 18% of the country’s electricity, with residential buildings accounting for a further 33%.

New construction guidelines like Net Zero have established a standard for sustainable building practices, and heavy government subsidies are making it more affordable to meet the higher upfront costs sometimes associated with green building. In this guide, we’re looking at some of the big trends for developers and building managers to keep an eye on in 2021.

Plus, stick around till the end for a short overview of the (many and various) green building certifications in Canada!

Building for Net Zero Compliance

The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation offers the following helpful definition of a Net Zero energy building:

A net-zero energy (NZE) house is designed and built to reduce household energy needs to a minimum and includes on-site renewable energy systems, so that the house may produce as much energy as it consumes on a yearly basis. An NZE home is not necessarily an “energy autonomous” house or “off-grid” house, as it can be connected to the electricity grid, so that it can supply electricity to the grid when it is producing more than it needs and draw from the grid when household demands exceed the amount of electricity produced on site. Taken over the year, the energy supplied to the grid balances the energy drawn from the grid, thus achieving net- zero annual energy consumption.

Reducing household energy use means improving the efficiency of HVAC systems, reducing energy (heat) loss and cutting down on electricity use:

Air-tight building envelopes:

If you’ve ever suffered the discomforts of working in a drafty office, it may soothe you to know that management was probably (almost) equally displeased by the state of their utility bills.

Thermal leakage causes heating and cooling costs to skyrocket. Net Zero buildings boast features like triple-pane windows, heavy insulation and building materials with a high insulation-value. Taken together these measures make it a lot less energy-intensive to maintain a steady, comfortable temperature.

Improving heating and ventilation efficiency:

Furnaces and traditional baseboard heating are still de rigueur in older buildings, and as they’ve probably warmed you through many a vicious Western Canadian winter, you may even have some real fondness for them. But today’s developers are working to find ways to cut down reliance on natural gas and electric.

Integrating solar has been one popular trend. Consider the example of roof-mounted solar panels, which snatch up the sun’s rays and direct their energy into a gravel pit located beneath the building, where it powers electric pumps for heating.

Smarter appliances and LED bulbs:

“IoT” has to be up there with “Bitcoin” and “blockchain” in terms of trends you don’t want to get cornered into talking about at a party, but in terms of the construction world, the Internet of Things is already very much, well, a thing.

Appliances that can automatically regulate their own consumption can significantly curb utility bills, while high-efficiency LED lighting represents a much greener alternative to wasteful incandescent bulbs. But the biggest IoT-related savings are in HVAC, as we’ll see below.

HVAC Evolves

At Gateway, we’re HVAC experts, so it makes sense for us to focus a little on the heating and cooling angle. Heating and cooling in general uses about 40% of the energy most homes consume. As a result, HVAC has a great impact on how green buildings are graded by bodies like LEED and Energy Star.

Some examples of automated (IoT) HVAC systems include equipment which monitors humidity; ambient temperature; the number of people in a given room; CO (carbon monoxide) levels; and even the current position of the sun.

This is creating huge opportunities for so-called green-collar jobs in HVAC, with technicians who are able to marry their traditional skills with an understanding of how to integrate newer technology standing to benefit greatly from the industry’s new normal.

Higher Demand for Green Building Materials

Hand-in-hand with the trends we’ve identified above will be a surge in demand for the green materials these new approaches rely on. As we discussed in our Ultimate R22 Replacement Guide, significant shifts in the supply and demand of key materials will have ramifications for industry buyers as well as the Canadian manufacturing industry.

Per a report by the Vancouver Economic Commission, in Metro Vancouver alone between 2019 and 2032 demand for fenestration products, insulation, heat recovery ventilators (HRVs), HVAC equipment and more is expected to surge to over CAD $3.3B annually.


If those numbers don’t speak clearly enough, consider that the same report claims the market for low-performance products (particularly windows) is expected to plummet after 2022. What this should tell any builder is that you should already be phasing out low-efficiency products and making sure that you have a solid network of suppliers of their high-efficiency replacements.

As for buyers, don’t let the slimmer sticker price of low-efficiency materials fool you. After all, fire sale prices should always make you question what caused the fire in the first place!

Retrofit Mania

Earlier in this piece we mentioned that large buildings account for a big share of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and while greener construction on new structures will mitigate this over time, those existing polluters aren’t going anywhere soon. In fact, at least half of them will still be operational as of 2050 according to a report by the Canada Green Building Council.

That means we need to take action to reduce their carbon footprint. The report recommends a combination of deep retrofits, installation of on-site renewables (such as solar panels or wind turbines), fuel-switching and recommissioning. We’re already seeing heavy government subsidies and rebates to support this work, and building owners have been taking advantage, prompting a spike in green retrofit work that looks set to gain momentum in the years to come.

Modular Building’s Moving On In

Modular construction, or the practice of building a structure in sections at an off-site location and then transporting them to their final destination for assembly, is becoming increasingly popular, partly due to its higher efficiency and reduction of waste materials.

HGTV Canada host Mike Holmes recently pointed towards modular as a top trend in a piece from The National Post, citing a lack of weather damage and delays during construction, plus the significant benefits of assembly-line efficiencies. Meanwhile, academic journal The Conversation has noted that homes built using factory-based precision-technologies have the potential to be twice as energy-efficient as those constructed on-site.

Part of the reason for this is that factories tend to have much better recycling programs than traditional construction sites. Another major factor is that it is more efficient to scale up production of prefabricated elements using robotics than it is to rely on human manual labour. As you might expect, the Japanese have been well ahead of the curve in terms of adopting prefab buildings, but here in Canada there has already been a proliferation of green construction companies targeting the industrial and residential markets.

Green Building Certifications in Canada

There are quite a few green building certifications out there, some administered by the government and others by industry associations and NGOs. These are the big ones:

1. The best known is probably Energy Star (or ENERGY STAR as Natural Resources Canada prefers to stylize it–but we don’t want to spend this whole section yelling at you). At least, the logo’s seemingly everywhere you look, though we suspect comparatively few outside of the construction industry have looked into what it means in practice.

energy star logo

Energy Star recognizes structures that have been designed to use less energy, emit lower amounts of greenhouse gasses and cost owners less to operate. Buildings that have been evaluated by Natural Resources Canada are scored on 100 point scale, with those above 75 being eligible for Energy Star recognition.

If you’re interested in applying for this certification, NRC offers a handy web portal. Heads up though; Energy Star is only currently offered for “K-12 schools, commercial offices, hospitals, supermarkets and food stores, medical offices, senior care communities and residential care facilities, and ice/curling rinks,” per the NRC’s site.

2. Points for the mouthfuliest green construction honour goes to the BOMA BEST Awards (the Building Owners and Managers Association’s Building Environmental STandards). As you might’ve guessed from the moniker, BOMA BEST is an industry standard for commercial building sustainability.

boma best logo

BOMA BEST is the only Canadian certification program of its kind for commercial buildings, and it boasts significant uptake: more than 7,000 buildings have received its seal since 2005.

3. If Energy Star provides a governmental certification and BOMA BEST supplies the industry oversight, LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) provides a welcome, internationally-recognized third-party alternative/addition. In Canada, LEED is administered in partnership with the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC).

LEED Certification Levels

LEED’s results have been impressive, at least in terms of sheer numbers, as this quick explainer video shows:

4. Finally, as an example of a more niche industry certification program, hotels and hospitality organizations have the option of applying for recognition by the global Green Key Eco-Rating Program.

green key eco rating program

After a thorough environmental audit, the program awards each business with a “green key rating” on a five-point scale. The rating is based on factors like the energy efficiency of their buildings are, their solid and water waste management procedures, and approach to housekeeping (think changing the sheets every day versus every other day). With admirable commitment to the whole ‘key’ metaphor, Green Key then provides the hotelier with recommendations to help them ‘unlock’ a greener operating policy.

While Green Key is largely based on self-reporting and is therefore somewhat susceptible to what’s colloquially referred to as lying, for the curious this interesting article really digs into how regulators keep hotels environmentally accountable.


Well that’s it for our look at green construction in Canada this year. We hope it’s helped you get a sense of the where the industry is headed in 2021 and beyond. As always, if anything you’ve read has prompted some questions about your own HVAC, and/or what opportunities are out there for you to get greener, don’t hesitate to contact us.

We love to hear from you… If you have any comments, suggestions or questions please feel free to post them below.

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