Status report on the road to our green building future

A funny thing happened on the way to the September 12 Green building breakfast meeting on cutting-edge green building research. The old-time green economics movement became a business niche.

I went to the meeting at the Royal York to hear the latest on new proof that green buildings boost employee productivity big time. But it didn’t take long before my mind was flooded with 25-year old memories of founding the Toronto Coalition for a Green Economic Recovery, the first organization in Canada to put green economics on the public agenda.

We were mostly a barely-disguised 5.0 version of 1960s hippies, but charter members included Bob Hunter, a City TV host and Greenpeace founder listed by Time Mag as one of the century’s green heroes, leading city politico Jack Layton, Gary Gallon, Ontario government staffer who forced the government’s hand to make INCO stop polluting, and me, fresh from being arrested at a logging blockage in Temagami.

Although we all talked the green business talk back in 1992, we didn’t really walk the walk or look the look.

There wasn’t a suit or business casual among us, and certainly no-one to spring for breakfast in fancy digs. Nor had we been brought together by an email message. People planned their lives then with help from landline phones, if you can imagine.

Not that I rue the loss of those naive days and hopes, when it was thought that the 1990s were the turnaround decade, and that the turn had a good chance of turning out right. That’s why people who promoted green-inspired buildings, energy, transportation, sewage and food all worked together on moving the whole economy and society toward green.

The people keen on green construction in those days were an important contingent of the movement, male, flakey and geekish as they were.

But we did manage to:

  • Convince the Carpenters’ and Iron Workers union and district labour council to see the great green hope for jobs of the future.
  • Persuade the Royal York to set the hospitality industry standard for green roofs and conservation practices generally.
  • Have the city set up an energy efficiency office.
  • Get the newly-amalgamated City of Toronto to adopt an environmental plan in 1998 that amounted to a bureaucratic translation of my 1995 book, Get a Life!, which synthesized the Coalition’s drop-dead attitude toward any who resisted transformative change.

Enough of the past! I have no nostalgia. My only sadness is that I’m the only charter founder whose still alive. The other three died of prostate cancer when they still had much to give their families and country.

Once the flood of memories subsided, I celebrated being at a business breakfast meeting of the Toronto chapter of the Green Building Council at the famed Royal York hotel.

We have not come as far or as fast as I once fantasized, but we have come a long and good way.

That shows especially in the fact that the moderator and two of three green construction panelists were women managers. Now we know green means business!

The quality of research behind green construction and real estate claims has also made great leaps forward.

The focus of the September 12 meet-up was to hear about game-changing information based on the recently-released edition of a report by researchers with Canada’s National Research Council (available online at no cost). The article proves that certified green buildings boost employee effectiveness and organizational productivity.


All presenters agreed this is a watershed moment for green building approaches. Green and clean is no longer about good image and branding — with a dash of humble energy savings thrown in for good measure — from doing the right thing by the natural environment.

It’s more hardnosed than that. Detailed and precise research shows that workers in green and clean buildings are more satisfied at work, provide more value to clients and stakeholders, are more engaged in company programs, and receive higher evaluations from their managers.

It’s the clearest and most convincing evidence yet, said panelist Ruth Weiner, a director of RBC’s commercial real estate unit.

Real estate is no longer just a cost item that provides an attractive exterior, a sheltered shelter, and location, location, location. “It’s a live contributor to productivity,” said Ruth Weiner, a director with Royal Bank of Canada’s real estate unit. “It’s part of a cultural transformation.”


The same thinking seems to apply to furniture for commercial buildings, according to panelist Andy Delisi, the environment and design rep for Envirotech Office Systems, which remanufactures used office equipment for sale at discounted prices.

Workers at sit-stand desks can freely shift from sitting to standing. They overcome the dangerous health effects of sitting too long – sitting is the new smoking, as the saying goes –and their energy level goes up. People come across as more enthusiastic when they stand during sales calls, he said.

People are starting to think about furniture in the same way they’re changing how they think about food, he says. At one time they just wanted to know the price. Now they want to know the provenance, where the food came from and how it was grown and prepared.

We already knew about the “double whammy of sustainability and savings from wellness,” from remanufactured ergonomic furniture, he said. Now we can top the benefit package with increased productivity.

That’s a whole new meaning and impact for interior design of an organization’s culture, which goes beyond the commodity value of furniture.


These new findings will transform thinking about employee health, said Lee-Ann Kosziwka, a health promoter from Peel Region.

Old-style health campaigns rested on four pillars – quit smoking, get active, eat well, engage with others for better mental health. Now there’s a fifth pillar – the physical environment at work.

Without specific or intentional effort by employees, the building and furniture by themselves provide health benefits that boost productivity. They not only counter preventable absenteeism. They work against preventable presenteeism, Kosziwka said.


Meeting moderator, Lisa Fulford-Roy from the Commercial Buildings and Real Estate said the new findings show how to attract and retain millennials and other young creatives who are looking for better work-life balance.

They want ways to squeeze more health benefits from many points in their life, not just away from work, at the gym. They appreciate environments that help them stay healthy at work too.

The new scientific findings “require a different conversation with different stakeholders,” Fulford-Ray said.  It’s a new value proposition, she said.


Peter Love, an acknowledged energy efficiency expert speaking from the audience, was pleased to see the new study reinforced the 2014 study by the World Building Council, which revealed that green buildings helped employers reduce employee turnover and improve employee health.

The World Building Council report anticipated the leadership opportunity that arises from findings of employee productivity.

Most employers spend ten times more to hire workers than they do to provide a workspace and operate a building.

That’s grist for “the next chapter” in green building research, the 2014 report said, because it means that a minor expense added to real estate costs can move the needle of the big cost of hiring workers.

Construction and real estate investments exert leverage power. A one percent increase in worker productivity from investments in construction leads to a tenfold payback.

Try disrupting that!

That scale of payback is especially relevant in workplaces using today’s modern technology. Much is said about smart technologies. More needs to be said about the smarter and more live workers needed to both manage the smart machines and keep them from doing stupid things at a very fast rate.

The payback on investments in workplace effectiveness is getting higher in high-tech workplaces.


I was also pleased to see the same openness to transformative change as green economy freaks enjoyed during the 1990s.

Today, wholesale transformation is described as disruption. Same difference. Out with the old, in with the new!

It might sound virtually impossible, but the commercial construction and real estate industry are about to face disruption on the same scale as newspapers, supermarkets, shopping malls, taxis, beer and coffee.

In all cases, industries and companies facing extinction become victims of disruption because they added no value to what a commodity ordered online with same-day delivery can provide.

The companies still surviving and thriving have figured out how to serve their customers better than a website and speedy delivery service, and how to foreground a relationship with customers that an impersonal computer algorithm can’t compete against.

Which is of course music the ears of Ingenuity, the hosts who invited me to check out the breakfast in the first place. Founded on a commitment to factoring people and partners into their projects and practices, they’ve found a formula that generates more than just a healthy bottom line. It creates returns at every stage of their projects that are realized in stronger ties with their trades, more trust from architects and designers, more responsibility from developers, and relationships with tenants.

Values, as it turns out, can also be disruptive.