Innovative Leaders at the Forefront of Sustainable Construction Practices

As the Earth’s international community moves through the 21st Century the necessity to progress within the domain of environmental sustainability widens with each passing day. A number of countries and business industries have begun making notable inroads but there is still a significant way to go. Here in Canada the construction sector is one of those innovative sustainability leaders due in large part to the sizable efforts of EllisDon, the country’s second-largest construction firm.

EllisDon is an employee-owned construction services company that was founded and incorporated in 1951 in London, Ontario, by brothers Don and David Ellis Smith. Headquartered in Mississauga, the enterprise now has annual revenues approaching $4 billion and is led by CEO Geoff Smith, son of Don Smith. By utilizing the company’s core capabilities throughout the pre-construction, construction, and post-construction, each and every client is promised a guarantee of outstanding success with minimal risk.

Now in its seventh decade of operations the company has delivered thousands of projects around the globe and is fully committed to the highest level of excellence in high-performance building design, advanced clean-technology integration, and low carbon strategies all the while maintaining impeccable safety standards. In order to maximize efforts in this increasingly important realm, the company took the initiative to open its Sustainable Building Services (SBS) division.

The Canadian Business Journal recently spoke with Andrew Bowerbank, Global Director, Sustainable Building Services at EllisDon about the company’s impressive achievements and also about some of the innovative platforms coming down the pike. He joined EllisDon less than two years ago equipped with an outstanding resume and diversified portfolio making it clear he was the best man to take on this all-important responsibility. Bowerbank, who graduated from university as an industrial designer, comes from a strong family pedigree of business excellence with his father having served as president of 20th Century Fox Films in Canada.

“I did a lot of work in products and design, including automotive design and computer technology,” begins Bowerbank. “To me there were a lot of issues around manufacturing itself and everything went from the essence and cleanness of true design right into manufacturing protocols and there was a lot of waste and concerns around that whole sector. When I was a young designer there wasn’t much I could do about that and I had a real passion for the environment.”

It soon became evident to Bowerbank that the world of manufacturing wasn’t for him, and so he took time off and traveled to Asia, including a stopover in Japan for a year. Upon returning to Canada, Bowerbank opened a design firm. “We focused on creating custom furniture and products out of exotic woods. Back then there wasn’t even the idea of sustainable wood products. We started getting into using trees that were hit by lightning. We soon got interest from clients to develop these one-of-a-kind pieces.”

Following several years of notable success, Bowerbank decided he wanted to embark on advocacy work and government projects, so his partner bought him out. Bowerbank then joined the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, which had a mandate to try and find a healthy relationship between the natural and build environments. “It was at the time when green buildings were just coming onto the market. I was asked to lead a division around sustainable development and help to grade these buildings that were meeting new standards of efficiency,” he recalls.

Prior to EllisDon, Bowerbank served as the CEO of the World Green Building Council for three years, which included helping to set up councils across Europe, Asia Pacific as well as Latin America and South America. “It was an opportunity to meet some amazing people. That really helped to set the course for the rest of my career,” he says. Bowerbank also has the distinction of having worked on the very first green platinum building in Ontario.

Upon finishing his tenure with the World Green Building Council in late 2010, Bowerbank did not want to just accept any executive job due to the fact he had generated such an impressive rolodex of high-level contacts who he wanted to continue to engage and help promote meaningful change. He began consulting for large companies such as Magna and Enbridge to help create new divisions and produce strategies and technologies for sustainable development and communities. Bowerbank also took on contract work with the department of Foreign Affairs and represented the federal government at numerous international conferences. Shortly thereafter he became aware that EllisDon held a genuine interest in being a market leader in several crucial areas – with environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility at the forefront.

Since joining the team at EllisDon, Bowerbank spearheaded the Low Carbon Agenda aimed at having a positive impact on the environment, emerging technologies and the way that structures are designed and built.

“When I came onboard about a year-and-a-half ago I already knew a number of the executives from previous initiatives and so we started talking about opportunities and what’s possible with sustainability at EllisDon. At the time there was basically just a division that took care of the LEED certification process for buildings,” he explains. The first requirement was to ensure that people internally understood the idea of constructing low-carbon buildings with low-carbon economics and Net Zero Energy.

“The term ‘Low Carbon Agenda’ is our internal education mechanism so that all of our teams really understand what they targets could look like,” explains Bowerbank.

Evolution of the Industry

EllisDon has earned a fabulous reputation within construction throughout the years with an endless portfolio of impressive builds ranging from towering skyscrapers to state-of-the-art hospitals, schools, roads and numerous others. The industry began to evolve at an intensified pace through the 1980s and 1990s due largely to the tremendous success in the public-private (P3) partnerships market, which at the time was still very much in the infancy stages as a new methodology. Hospitals, transit systems and airports are just a few examples of P3 construction projects that EllisDon has become involved with, which resulted in the rapid advancement of the company’s development of a full life-cycle suite of services and divisions.

“We can now confidently say to a client that we have the capacity to do everything from design, build, finance, operate and maintain for the life of the project. That whole idea of life-cycle services speaks very well to what a carbon-neutral building or a Net Zero Energy building can look like,” Bowerbank proudly says. “Our CEO Geoff Smith is an amazing leader and all our executive team is great. Geoff and I are working together on a number of projects. Having buy-in from the CEO on down is very important.”

At the point when everyone was properly up to speed internally it became crucial for Bowerbank and his team to maintain momentum and move rapidly in order to advance the new methodology to an external audience. In February, 2016, Bowerbank brought together about 60 CEOs and other senior executives with the province of Ontario and the federal government to showcase this new trend. “We started talking about what the economic opportunities are with the low-carbon market and that really set the framework for what we call our Carbon Impact Initiative, and that’s our external engagement,” he notes.

The ability to collaborate with some of the largest, most influential companies in the country holds a priceless value and includes groups such as WSP, BASF, Cement Association of Canada, Cricket Energy, Cisco, Enbridge Gas and Avis & Young. “If we can use that leverage and knowledge of these companies that know how to build these new buildings of hyper efficiency then we have something,” says Bowerbank.

The Industry Response Strategy was formulated to focus on the Net Zero Energy building market, which is projected to be a $700 billion industry within 3 years (2020). The Carbon Impact Initiative is not a new association or a non-governmental organization (NGO) but rather it is an industry-led response strategy to Canada’s commitments to climate change.

“Governments do a great job of setting policy, regulation and direction and we have great NGOs but unless you have the private sector stepping up to champion this new agenda and by extension making clients understand the importance of it we’re not going to get past the levels of change that we need,” declares Bowerbank.

Global Sustainability

The international construction sector is now approaching $8 trillion industry and is expected to be a $15 trillion industry between 2030 and 2050. However, less than 10% of all new construction and renovation can be classified as reaching green targets.

According to population studies by the World Bank and the United Nations it’s expected there will be as many as 10 billion people living on the planet by 2050 with 70% of civilians settling in urban centres. At the start of 2017 there are 18 mega cities around the world, with a mega city being classified as having a population of 10 million or more. That number is expected to grow to 27 mega cities by the year 2050.

“If we’ve got to build these cities to house more people where are the resources going to come from to do that? We can’t manage the cities and drive energy through traditional fossil fuels. There just isn’t going to be enough in the next couple of generations,” states Bowerbank.

At COP21 all 195 countries stepped up to make a commitment on climate change. The massive assembly didn’t come together because political leaders felt it was necessary and good for the planet. They made the commitment because they had confidence based on what they have been seeing from the private sector evolving and the economics around it.

“You look at China being the largest investor in clean technology in the world right now and you look at some of the numbers that Mark Carney out of England is talking about in terms of investment for new energy technologies and Saudi Arabia developing a $2 trillion mega-fund specifically to get off of oil as an economic driver. That will be the biggest mega-fund in the world when it’s ready,” reveals Bowerbank.

Additionally, a consortium of behemoth companies in the U.S., including Apple and Google, are coming together with $148 billion to invest into new clean technologies to lessen the impact of climate change. From a country’s perspective, Canada has often lagged about a decade behind some other trendsetting nations when it comes to constructing higher-performance buildings, but as Bowerbank notes, there is a fantastic opportunity for this country not only catch up but also to be a future leader if there is an ability to articulate energy, infrastructure, communications and transportation as an integrated system.

China is making huge strides in investments and really taking on solar as a primary market. But upon closer reflection, the real leadership is coming from the companies within those countries.

Commitment to Change

To date, the Canadian economy and our infrastructure have been based on a fossil fuel system and a sudden switch is not realistic; it’s something that must happen over time. There must be assurances that the economics make sense during the transitional period. Moving from theory to practice needs to be implemented as quickly as possible, however, it can’t be reckless or it will negatively impact the delicate social, economic and environmental elements.

“I think the big players are doing it and the big countries are there. The countries that are falling behind often have the industries pushing the agenda, so it’s working in those jurisdictions as well. We have to remain diligent and keep contributing to this in order to push the agenda as aggressively but as responsibly as possible,” says Bowerbank.

The World Bank invited EllisDon to be part of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, which is a group of industry and government leaders coming together to put an international price on carbon. The common theme was that carbon pricing is one of the most efficient ways to reduce emissions and stimulate the market to make investments in innovation, and to deploy low-carbon technology.

World economies are shifting towards cleaner, more sustainable growth, and Canada must keep up to stay competitive. Governments can set the roadmaps, but private enterprise needs to embark on the journey. Bowerbank and his team are ensuring that EllisDon is positioned as a leader in this realm. “For us to be one of only 28 companies in Canada represented at the World Bank Leadership Coalition on carbon pricing, that to me is something I am very proud about. We have a responsibility to provide our big business leadership and see if we can provide that leadership to the Canadian market.”

The first item Bowerbank points to is the need to gain control of spiralling global temperatures and emissions, which he attributes to the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. He says it’s impossible to shift a market if the products are viewed as inferior. “There needs to be a balance between supply and demand where the economics can have the opportunity to step up to do what’s right. If it’s always more expensive, it’s not going to work. There needs to be a proper disruptive market shift.”

LEED and Net Zero Energy

Leadership and Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) has certainly improved the process across North America, yet even now just 15% of buildings can be classified as a green. Bowerbank says that number needs to be 80% sooner than later. Even although LEED and other ratings systems would result in more expensive buildings to construct, the counterpoint has always been that operating costs would be lower over the next two decades. But that alone was never substantive enough to drive change because of the need for the upfront dollar while the benefits could take years to reap. The presence of Net Zero Energy brings an entirely new realm of possibilities.

“Now it’s the same discussion point where it’s going to potentially cost more, however, we can guarantee that if you achieve something near Net Zero Energy it will represent a direct savings on your annual utility costs. If done properly, all of a sudden there is a quantifiable number where lifecycle cost savings really can reflect your initial investment in design and development,” says Bowerbank.

LEED is an educational tool and a checklist that indicates a quantifiable level of success in a green building, but that was back in the day when there was still uncertainty over what green really encapsulated. LEED allowed a number of people and entities to brainstorm ideas to take the whole greening initiative to a much more substantive level and create a better system and by extension a building. A third party was verifying that the builder was delivering what the client wanted but it was only a small elite group that understood it. The market is now educated, bringing into some question whether certification is even necessary any more.

“If it’s Leadership and Energy and Environmental Design that means your stamp is on the building when you turn it over to the client. It doesn’t guarantee that building is going to be operated as initially intended. Now we need to look at operational processes and make sure they actually operate as intended,” remarks Bowerbank.

In P3 projects LEED certification remains an important cog because it ensures that any provinces involved will receive the building structure that was promised. Severe penalties reaching millions of dollars can be served if certain levels of LEED certification are not met. But LEED was never meant to be a targeted measure. The building would be constructed and a third party would designate the level of certification achieved. With Net Zero Energy the energy bill is all that is required to determine success.

The industry is now at LEED v4, which is the newest version of the green building code. It is even more specialized and designed for a better user experience and is now mandatory for use. “It is much more sophisticated and LEED is always meant to be evolving. It will be a valuable tool going forward. If a building achieves LEED gold or platinum you’re well on your way to reaching Net Zero Energy, so there are a lot of synergies there,” explains Bowerbank.

A Growing Portfolio

EllisDon has certified well over 120 large-scale green building projects and has provided technical guidance and support to over 160 green building projects in Canada and internationally, with a total construction value of more than $13 billion.

“We did the Toronto Pan-Am Games Village to LEED Gold and we’ve done some recent LEED platinum buildings that are phenomenal, including the Menkes’ development that we’re very proud about. There are buildings right across the country, and it would be impossible to list all of them,” reflects Bowerbank.

Bowerbank and his team of experts have proven they can achieve LEED platinum to the highest standard, so now it’s a matter of envisioning what is next on the horizon. For Bowerbank, it’s not just looking at the Carbon Impact Initiative but it’s now time to get down to actually building – and they are doing just that. As Bowerbank explains, the Carbon Impact Initiative can be broken down into four key action items: “It’s developing pilot projects to these new levels of hyper-efficiency; it’s tracking the carbon emissions during the construction phase; integrating new technologies into the buildings; and it’s determining the best return on investment strategies.”

Bowerbank says he is pushing the pilot projects phase very aggressively at the moment and is trying to get 20 large projects of different types and hitting aggressive targets of either Net Zero Energy or Carbon Neutral, or both. “We’ve already broken ground on Mohawk College’s new NetZero Energy building. The next one coming up is the Brickworks Kiln Barns project. We want to be carbon neutral on that one so they are also formally one of our pilot projects.”

There are also multiple projects on the waterfront, working with George Brown College and numerous others. Bowerbank is currently speaking with the province of Ontario about how public and private entities can better collaborate as a means to incentivize clients. The team at EllisDon is also talking to British Columbia and Alberta, so its popularity is spreading right across the country.

2020 and Beyond

EllisDon is quickly ramping up to speed on mass-wood technology and mass-wood building. Bowerbank says the company is pushing hard to ensure everyone understands that market very well, with the Building Science group driving the initiative. There is also the idea of Smart Technologies, which means not only understanding how to build the structures but understand the interactive systems and technologies that are in those buildings. They are almost living entities now as opposed to square blocks.

There is a concerted effort to obtain international projects with the company now in the midst of constructing two of the largest office towers in Bogota, Colombia as well as one in Dubai.
EllisDon has established an Innovation Council to map out where the construction industry will be headed over the next five to 10 years.

“One of the things that really stand out to me is the idea of manufacturing really becoming an important strategic consideration or business practice for the construction sector,” adds Bowerbank. “The whole idea of bringing manufacturing protocols into construction is key. The impact and opportunities of this relationship could be huge. Our CEO Geoff Smith has engaged the CEO of Magna to specifically talk about the impact and opportunities.”

Bowerbank is extremely enthused by the rapid growth and uptake in EllisDon’s civil division, which includes such projects as the Edmonton LRT line, roadways, airports and transit systems. “For us to integrate the civil and infrastructure work with the buildings is really important when we’ve got to start looking at moving towards not just individual buildings but communities and campuses and precincts and energy systems and making sure that integrated distributed energy is clean available. The civil work and the infrastructure must be closely connected. We’re going to see more excellent work from EllisDon’s infrastructure and civil groups very soon.”

Major new construction projects are surfacing right across Canada, with hot spots in every province. The $120 billion investment in public infrastructure by the federal government, as well as an increase in investor confidence, means the sector’s future appears ready for a period of sizable growth.

More and more construction projects are incorporating systems of digital sensors, intelligent machines, mobile devices, and new software applications as part of the new approach to business. The challenge for Bowerbank and his team is to achieve widespread adoption of these new innovative technologies not only in Canada but around the world. Based on early results they are off to an excellent start.