building exterior plan of one montgomery plaza

Our Insights

The Journey to Carbon Neutrality

How public building projects are leading by example

Generally, public buildings stand as a reminder of our past, but today they also serve as a canvas for our future. The drive for sustainable design, healthy buildings and accessibility certifications will result in positive carbon and social impacts. Governments at all levels are leading by example with new directives to address the climate crisis at the global level, as well as respond to the communities they serve at the local level.

How do we design to reduce our carbon footprint? How can a deep energy retrofit give a building new life? In a struggling economy, how can designers provide innovative solutions while being cost conscious? Learn more as Jonathan Hughes, Chief Operating Officer at NORR, leads a roundtable discussion with integrated team members as part of our 2021 Insight Series.

How does design play a role in the commitment to make public buildings more sustainable?

Jonathan Hughes, Chief Operating Officer

I think it’s important to start with the recognition that many of our government clients are driving the mandate for net-zero emissions. Nearly 200 countries have signed onto the Paris climate agreement. Signatories promise to achieve net-zero emissions beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100. Net-zero means that all emissions produced are completely offset by other actions that remove carbon from the atmosphere, such as absorbed through plants and trees or buried through carbon-capture technology. While these mandates apply to all buildings, it is our public building sector that is starting to lead by example.

Tobias Fellows, Principal

The demand for sustainable design will be of critical importance to the public buildings sector in 2021 and beyond. Those responsible for leading government and publicly-funded projects need to understand the full lifecycle of a building in order to achieve net zero carbon emissions – or a low carbon solution. We take a pragmatic approach and break down the components within a holistic process. Every element must be considered and costed for the short-term and long-term benefits. For existing buildings, you have to work across the spectrum of sustainable design from feasibility studies and deep energy retrofit investigations to recapitalization and operations and maintenance programs. It’s all part of the success of a project.

For new builds, we’re seeing a more concerted effort to adhere to stricter certifications like Passive House from some of our clients. The Passive House Institute certifies buildings based on energy use per square foot to help reduce a building’s ecological footprint and bring down energy use. Traits of these buildings include fresh air, increased levels of insulation, resistance to heat flow, homogeneous interior temperature, and slow temperature changes.

Andrew Schmidt, Studio Manager

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions and working towards net zero carbon emissions is becoming a priority in many municipalities. In Toronto, ON for example, the Toronto Green Standard features a tiered sustainability approach for both private and city-owned developments. Like other programs, incentives are being offered to promote sustainable site and building design. Government mandates are setting the pace for green decisions, with owners and designers collaborating on the cost benefit analysis over the lifecycle of the building.

Chris Pal, Vice President

Taking existing building stock to a carbon neutral level is a challenging proposition but one that continues to evolve. Finding the balance between designing innovative sustainable solutions and offering the best value to the crown will continue to be a priority as the economy attempts to rebound from the pandemic. A deep energy retrofit on an existing public building can be challenging, but effective in the long run. Our engineering team has been effective in demonstrating data-driven results through energy modelling across large-scale, heritage conservation, adaptive reuse and renovation projects.

Kiran Sharma-Boon, Principal

On a very different scale and type of government sustainability project, we are working with partners on a new Discovery Building that will facilitate the British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) ongoing climate change research in Antarctica. Located at the Rothera Research Station, the activities will provide the backbone for the UK in the field of polar science. Sustained Observation (a science research project) will focus on crucial Earth System indicators in Antarctica that are vital to the global scientific effort to understand our changing world. It’s a three-year project and demonstrates the extreme commitment of government clients. I was lucky enough to visit some of the other research stations in the sub-Antarctic islands on their science vessel James Clark Ross. As designers, we are very proud of being able to contribute to ensuring that facilities our scientists use are fit for purpose. We are also finding public building clients want us to increasingly investigate refurbishment over new builds. The RAF Museum has asked us to explore options on how we can refurbish their existing building stock and consolidate their back of house requirements to provide a more sustainable solution that reduces their carbon footprint and is designed to be adaptable in its layout to respond to future requirements. This extends the lifecycle use of the building. As designers, we are leading sustainable design discussions with our clients and ensuring that it is intrinsically built into our design approach.

Overview of British Antarctic Survey Project

Public buildings must be accessible to everyone. What design strategies can help achieve that mandate?

Tobias Fellows, Principal

Accessibility is embedded in every architectural design as standards have been mandated for buildings and spaces. However, there are different levels to consider that form the accessibility strategy. Similar to sustainability ratings like LEED©, the Rick Hansen Foundation Accessibility Certification measures and certifies the level of meaningful access to buildings and sites in Canada. Designing an accessible building is a thoughtful process that considers everything from public transit in the area to the correct signage, evenly distributed light and space in corridors. Clients are striving for the highest standard of accessibility, especially in public buildings. We have supported clients in achieving this designation such as the Canadian Science and Technology Museum Renewal. When we make our buildings more accessible to those of us who have challenges, it benefits us all as we make buildings that are more accessible to everyone.

Jonathan Hughes, Chief Operating Officer

Public buildings need to be designed so that people can get to them. Designing public buildings to work efficiently with transit-oriented developments helps reduce the carbon footprint. For example, the Carling Campus Project, home to the Department of National Defense in Ottawa, ON is considering the addition of a unique transit spur line connection to service more than 9,000 employees. This type of thinking and action supports both lowering carbon emissions and accessibility.

Kiran Sharma-Boon, Principal

As designers of public buildings, we have to find a balance between the visitor flow and experience (front of house) and the staff flow and experience (back of house) of the building to ensure that it is accessible and inclusive for all. At the root of it is understanding the purpose of the building and how it functions and operates which ultimately leads the design solution.

As employees return to the office, how is design playing a role in keeping everyone safe and connected?

Lizanne Dubien, Studio Manager

We could see a shift back from the unassigned desk plan to a more traditional office structure as both employers and employees place an emphasis on health. While there may be more people working from home going forward, those returning to the office want more space. Design will need to account for more private and sanitary workstations as workplace strategies shift in the wake of the pandemic. While there is no one solution, we are designing to specific standards as outlined by various levels of government.

What is NORR looking forward to in the Public Buildings sector in 2021?

Scott Catallo, Principal

In the United States, the federal government controls more office space than any single company. During and after a public health crisis, that office space like others will need to be reimagined and repurposed. Government-owned space as well as government leases will adapt their spaces to become more efficient and healthier office environments than those they vacated pre-pandemic. At a local municipal level, there is a drive for more community-based developments and renovations, especially those projects focusing on our first responders. Moving forward, cities will put a renewed focus on community services such as Police, Fire, Transit and Community Centers. I feel there will be a continued trend for local municipalities to consolidate their inventory of underutilized buildings. Cities mirroring the private sector will learn to adapt to the post-pandemic world. Cities will refocus their utilization efforts and reorganize employees. These efforts will allow cities to sell off surplus assets or allow the opportunity for repurposing assets.

Andrew Schmidt, Studio Manager

Technology is advancing at a rapid pace and is allowing us to design and work in collaboration with clients and stakeholders in new ways. As designers, we have more tools at our disposal, strength in 3D drawing and leaders at every level. This year in particular has forced us to learn and work together online and in real-time and I’m looking forward to that accelerating well beyond 2021.

Kiran Sharma-Boon, Principal

Our current designs for public buildings in the UK range from projects such as the new Government Property Agency Hub through to major University developments; in all of them, we make sure we use these forward-thinking projects to support our Graduates and Apprenticeships so they see first-hand the efforts major Institutions are making to achieve a goal of Net Carbon Zero for their estates. Most importantly in 2021, we have invested in additional training programs that cover such topics as Passive House, reducing embodied carbon in our designs through general environmental design awareness for our up-and-coming designers to make sure the next generation of Architects continues to have the knowledge to make a real difference in years to come.