HRM’s wood-first policy should not be set in stone

A recent article in the Chronicle Herald outlined concern by concrete industry players about the proposed Halifax Regional Municipality (HRM) “wood-first” policy. A report was submitted by Peter Stickings, HRM’s acting director of planning and infrastructure, to consider implementing a policy to recommend the use of wood for all municipal structures undergoing construction or renovation. The concrete sector argued that politicians should not get involved in how designers make decisions about designing buildings.

Robert Niven, Founder and CEO of CarbonCure, agrees with this position, as shown in the following editorial letter submitted to the Chronicle Herald this week.

“Halifax City Hall’s proposed Wood First policy is a thinly veiled marketing campaign by the timber industry and a misguided environmental protection measure. This is  the wrong approach to greening our cities, roads, workplaces and homes. I applaud the City to follow other progressive municipalities in its demonstrated willingness to adopt green building policies. However, let’s not reinvent the wheel or fall prey to self-serving greenwashing marketing campaigns. Architects, engineers, builders and planners are already equipped with the tools to build green buildings customized for our local conditions. Common tools include the Green Building Council LEED system, Living Building Challenge and Passive House. Each of these guides the most appropriate material selection. In many cases wood is preferable, while in others steel or concrete is more suitable. Material selection is made on a case-by-case basis. The main point is that politicians and bureaucrats are not qualified to design our buildings. They are, however, essential in creating the policies to encourage non-prescriptive green development. With non-prescriptive policies, our local construction professionals are entirely equipped to green our building stock.

The timing is excellent to be having this discussion. Last month, I attended the US Green Building Council convention in San Francisco with 30,000 others committed to greener and healthier buildings. Our company, a concrete technology firm, was recognized among the Top 10 greenest building products for 2013. Not surprisingly a wood product was also listed. Just days ago, we also had the pleasure of visiting what is fast becoming one of the greenest cities on the planet – Doha, Qatar – to present our green concrete solutions at the United Nations climate negotiations. The central message in these sustainable hotspots is that there is too much misinformation about materials. The solution is to adopt a type of ‘nutritional label’ for building products called Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) that clearly presents the environmental impacts of all materials using a life cycle approach and standardized measurements. Just as you would compare the nutritional qualities of cereal at the grocery story, EPDs will empower building professionals to compare the sustainability of materials. Once and for all this will put an end to the type of greenwashing where sustainability is over-simplified by promoting a one size fits all solution.

Apart from the need for transparent facts-based building policies, there are other reasons to not unfairly disadvantage concrete construction. Concrete is intertwined in Halifax’s heritage. Amazingly, the Americas’ first real world use of modern concrete was on George’s Island. Canada’s first concrete building still stands today on Grafton St. and Shaw Brick, our largest concrete products supplier, just celebrated its 150 year anniversary. Concrete’s future in Halifax is just as impressive as its past. World leading concrete innovations have been created in Halifax. New fibers were invented here to replace steel reinforcement and are manufactured in Sydney for sale across the globe. We can even claim world leading green cement innovations. The local Brookfield plant was the first to make Contempra cement, an ultra low carbon cement with the same material performance. Our own company is writing a new chapter in green concrete’s history by making technologies that allow concrete producers to actually consume CO2 to make greener and stronger concrete. In our lab we are working on making Halifax the home of the world’s first affordable, carbon-negative concrete at scale. Halifax has and continues to be an important landmark for concrete innovation. Halifax is too important to concrete, the world’s most abundant man-made material, to recklessly implement Wood First policies.”

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