A Call To Action To Strengthen Our Industries And Achieve Our Climate Objectives

There’s a lot to be proud of in British Columbia in the area of green building and sustainability.

From the City of Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan, to the World’s Tallest Wood Building, to the Forestry Innovation Initiative advancing innovation in wood construction, solar installation and training projects in the Upper Nicola valley, and geothermal heating in Kamloops, the range and scope of green building innovation across the province is impressive.

But there’s a long way to go and a lot more to be done in this sector to fully realize its economic potential and its potential role in GHG reduction, waste reduction and sustainability.

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Catriona Power fromForesight Cleantech Accelerator Centre and George Benson fromVancouver Economic Commission (VEC) recently co-hosted a roundtable discussion and meeting about Green Buildings as part of theBC Cleantech Cluster Strategy project.

Key innovators and business and community leaders in the building and construction industry met up with Catriona and George to discuss what’s happening in the industry, share ideas and plan for the future.

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Why Green Buildings Are Important

The discussion began with an overview of the importance of green buildings. Here’s why green buildings are an important focus for VEC and for Foresight’s BC Cleantech Cluster project:

Discussion Topics & Insights

The discussion centred around what is needed to drive this industry in BC. Here were some of the main topics and insights:

R&D Investment & Capital

Despite modernization, in many ways, building and construction is working under the traditional craft-based approach of the last few centuries. Many builders and building-related companies are small contractors or small SME’s with 10 or less employees. While they may have dreams of ‘cleantech’, they do not have a budget to invest in R&D, and due to small margins, are risk averse.

Even in larger construction companies with bigger budgets, true R&D spending is poor, and only a handful are doing it.

Serious investment capital and R&D funding is required to grow this industry and to innovate in the area of sustainable building and construction.

The Transforming Construction Challenge in the UK was mentioned as an example – where the UK government will invest up to £170 million, matched by £250 million from industry, to create new construction processes and techniques.

Given the size and impact of the building/construction industry in BC, it was felt that this is the range of investment that we should be looking for.

The Need to Target Trades/Skills Development

There was also a discussion around the need to target the trades, and to develop skills in construction and green building technologies. It was noted that according to research done by the Green Jobs BC, 2/3 of skilled workers are over 45 years old, and will be looking to retire over the next few years.

This represents a huge educational opportunity. If we want to transform the business, and the business models supporting the industry, then we have to look at re-training the workforce to look at the building/ construction industry in multiple different ways, and include health/well being, digital skills, modular building, environmental focused design and circular economy building.

In some cases, new innovations and products were not able to penetrate the market in BC because the workforce had not been trained to operate or maintain the products (e.g heat pumps).

The Centre for Construction Innovation at Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) was mentioned as a model of how to address this need, as was the Oracle Construction and Engineering Innovation Lab in Chicago.

Construction as a Whole Lifecycle Industry

The modernization of the construction industry as a whole was also discussed extensively. While a lot of the success stories told about green buildings are about the installed products (heating systems, solar panels), or innovative building materials (mass timber/smart wood), it was felt that a great deal of innovation can and should come from focusing on the HOW of the building/construction industry, i.e. in becoming more efficient and digitized across the whole value chain.

For example, when Ford Motor Company sells you a car, they don’t come back a week later to custom-fit your door that they didn’t quite cut right. Yet, in construction, there is still a lot of duplication of effort and waste. What if the process was so efficient there wouldn’t need to be mass dumpsters for construction waste at every job site? Or if modular construction and 3D printing could be so efficient that the costs of custom building and duplication of effort could be significantly reduced?

Digital procurement was mentioned as an important first step in this process.

Growing the Network/Telling the Story

Another theme of the discussion centred around the idea that green building and green construction in BC is a story ready to be told, and an industry that should be promoted and invested in. Despite its huge contribution to BC’s economy (1 in 10 British Columbians work in construction), it was felt that construction is politically invisible. (While there’s a Ministry of Health and Ministry of Forestry for example, there’s no Ministry of Construction). It’s not championed, and as a result, there is often a lack of research and basic data about the industry.

It was felt that many companies in this sector are ready for the type of transformational conversations that should happen around topics such as embodied carbon, waste and remediation, digitization, 3D printing and modularization, etc. , but there needs to be an effort to educate and get the message out about these opportunities.

Mass timber building, for example, was seen as an important economic cluster and an area that should be promoted and invested in. British Columbia is a world leader in this area, and should build on this knowledge and experience base.

Where do we go from Here? Next Steps

There was some high level discussion about what are the next steps. A couple of key points were made.

First, the qualitative research we’re gathering as part of the BC Cleantech Cluster Initiative (at the roundtables, through selected interviews, etc) should seek to find out what are the key ‘triggers’ for each sub-group along the industry value chain. In other words – what would get them to move into action?

For some, it would be good policy (for example BC building policies support mass timber buildings), for others, it may be skilled workplace, (‘I know I can introduce my product to the market because there are skilled tradespeople who can install and service it’), for government funders, it may be jobs development, etc. Knowing what the ‘trigger’ points are is an important part of promoting the industry and transforming business models.

Second, industry is looking for real action and quick wins. They want to see a successful project that uses advanced technologies. They are nervous about being the first to market, and while they are excited about cleantech, they want to be supported in their innovation efforts.

References/Resources

There were some valuable resources that were referred to during the discussion, including:

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Using the best practices of cluster-based economic development, the BC Cleantech Cluster Initiative is bringing together key stakeholders groups including small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), associations, industry, investors and Federal and Provincial government to put in motion a sustainable model to help advance British Columbia’s thriving cleantech sector.

The recent roundtable meeting on the topic of Green Building is one of many regional and sector-based workshop/meetings being held across the province to stimulate discussion and share information and ideas about the cleantech economy emerging in British Columbia.

For more information:https://foresightcac.com/cluster/