Giving office buildings a longer lease on life

In 2019, Integral Group wanted to set up a new office in downtown Calgary. But they didn’t want to put pressure on the municipal landfill. So when they fitted out their 68,000-square-foot space in the TELUS Sky tower, they got creative.

Instead of drywall, they used cladding made from discarded crates. Salvaged fir moulding was repurposed into baseboards. Window samples formed a stunning feature wall. The list goes on. As a result, the project produced zero waste at no extra cost, thanks to the savings on landfill and material fees.

Sustainable approaches like this are becoming increasingly crucial in the construction sector: the largest consumer of raw materials worldwide and the source of an estimated 40 per cent of urban solid waste. And there are important climate change implications as well, because harvesting and processing raw materials — from timber to cement — produces a significant volume of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

“If we want to get to net zero, we actually have to think about the materials in our buildings and how we use them,” says Paul Shorthouse, managing director at Circular Economy Leadership Canada (CELC). “We don’t have to constantly extract new materials to build all the time.”

Partnering for circular insights

Partnerships are essential to better understanding the challenges and opportunities in the circular building space. CELC scoped out a project that brought together diverse players from across the construction and real estate value chain in order to explore the economic and carbon benefits that could come from extending the life of Canada’s 300 million square feet of office buildings.

“It wasn’t an easy task because a lot of this data doesn’t exist,” says Shorthouse. That’s where collaborations with CSA Group, industry, and federal government agencies — including the National Research Council and Natural Resources Canada — helped fill the gaps.

A consultant was hired to analyze different circular strategies, from extending the life of older buildings through adaptive reuse, to innovative leasing models, to exploring ways of minimizing construction waste by upcycling materials during renovation. Another consultant conducted lifecycle assessments (LCAs) comparing the carbon impact of retrofitting different types of office buildings versus demolishing them and replacing them with new energy-efficient buildings. (spoiler: retrofitting reduces GHG emissions in every scenario examined.)

Partnering with the Building Owner and Management Association (BOMA) Canada, builder EllisDon, commercial real estate firms including Hullmark and Jones Lang Lasalle (JLL), and other players across the value chain provided crucial insights.

In 2023, CELC published the findings in a first-of-its-kind Guide for the Real Estate Sector that quickly found a receptive audience.

Helping an industry hungry for solutions

Cutting carbon emissions is a priority across the industry. At the same time, the pandemic has fundamentally changed how we work, dramatically increasing office vacancies.

“The conditions are ripe for rethinking the use of our office building stock through upgrades, renovations, conversions and other creative forms of adaptive reuse,” CSA Group’s Ivica Karas told participants in a 2023 online webinar. “We just needed a catalyst. That is why we are very thankful to CELC.”

And as the report emphasizes, circular practices do more than reduce carbon emissions. Upgrading spaces to make them more energy-efficient leads to happier tenants and lower operating costs. Meanwhile, as the price of materials increases, renovating and repurposing buildings, rather than building from scratch, limits financial risks.

“The business case exists,” says JLL’s Hazel Sutton. “What we need to do now is just keep repeating it.” And not just for office buildings — but across the entire building sector and beyond.

Generating Innovation for Tomorrow’s Electricity Systems

Electricity systems around the globe are facing big changes, as the world transitions to net zero. In Alberta, we’re adding lots of micro-scale energy sources to the grid, like a dozen solar panels here and there on household roofs. We’re also cranking up demand, plugging in electric vehicles and running air conditioners more to cope with hotter summers.

That leaves the region’s utility managers with big challenges. “Today’s grid is over a hundred years old,” explains Energy Futures Lab ambassador Barend Dronkers. “[It’s] not sufficient for tomorrow’s needs.”

How can utilities integrate scattered sources of electricity into a grid designed for large, centralized generation? How can they manage growing demand — especially during peak hours — to avoid overloading the system? And how can they figure out quickly and cost-effectively which strategies work best?

These are critical questions, not only for Alberta, but for jurisdictions across Canada and beyond. While the answers will be different for different regions, what all jurisdictions need is a safe and collaborative space to explore them.

Since 2020, the Energy Futures Lab has been bringing together stakeholders from across Alberta’s energy sector to brainstorm solutions. One of the ideas that emerged — championed by Dronkers — was an AI-powered Grid Sandbox.

Providing the space and data to test drive innovation

The concept of this digital platform is to give utilities an opportunity to test different scenarios and strategies virtually, using real, detailed energy data from individual households.

For example, the sandbox could show utilities how the addition of electric vehicle chargers within specific neighbourhoods would affect the grid. Or model different energy saving incentive programs for households before investing time and money on real-world pilots.

Meanwhile, customers could run their own virtual scenarios, like assessing the impact of shifting laundry to off-peak hours or adding more insulation to their attic. The platform could also recommend ways to cut their energy use, tailored to their individual needs.

That’s key, since measures that make sense for a young family in a newly built townhouse might not be appropriate for a tenant renting a one-bedroom apartment or an empty nester in a century home.

Bringing together the right partners

Achieving that vision required meaningful collaboration. Software companies and AI specialists to write the code. Utilities to test the platform and provide feedback. Households willing to share detailed data about their energy use. Home energy audit software to generate baseline information.

Leveraging its strength as a trusted convenor across Alberta’s energy sector, the Energy Futures Lab helped forge the partnerships needed to develop and test a working prototype. That included teaming up with ENMAX — one of Alberta’s largest utilities — which piloted a demonstration of the sandbox with a handful of customers in 2021 and 2022. In addition, the RBC Foundation, through RBC Tech for Nature, partnered with the Energy Futures Lab on this emerging initiative.

Now, the project team is rolling out larger-scale pilots. And while those trials are taking place in Alberta, the results have the potential to help both utilities and users transform grids across North America and beyond to meet the energy needs of the future.

For Matt Mayer, Digital Innovation Lead for the Energy Futures Lab, it’s a perfect example of how the organization drives transformation. “Systems change requires creative mindsets,” he says. “It requires a sense of innovation. It requires different perspectives to come together to understand problems in order to identify meaningful solutions.”

How do we solve the Missing Middle?

How do we make a better life and a better future attainable for more Canadians? Twice a week, Mike Moffatt – who leads our work on affordable, climate-smart housing – joins co-host Cara Stern to explore the challenges and solutions for Canada’s middle class.

Catch all the episodes below.



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Industries and global economies are embracing a trillion dollar opportunity to eliminate waste, improve productivity, and maximize value from our supply chains. It’s called “circularity,” and this short video gives you the 101.

Watch the Video and learn more at Circular Economy Leadership Canada.

Canada can’t afford to underinvest in nature. How do we close the gap?

Introducing the Nature Investment Hub, a new Solution Space designed to drive a fivefold increase in investment in nature, together with public, private, philanthropic and Indigenous leaders. Check-out this recent webinar to learn more.

Watch the Webinar:

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Meet CANZA, The Canadian Alliance for Net-Zero Agri-food, one of our newest Solutions Spaces. CANZA fosters collaboration across the entire food and agriculture value-chain to unlock Canada’s potential to feed the world with low-carbon agriculture.

Watch the video and learn more at