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Climate leadership Article | 13-minute read

LEED, ENERGY STAR, BOMA BEST, and more: A guide to Canadian green building standards and certifications

Green buildings are energy-efficient and can help a business reduce its carbon emissions and its environmental impact.
women walking next to a building with plants

Whether you're constructing a new building or retrofitting an existing one, if you need to borrow money, financial institutions are going to ask about the environmental impact and intentions of your project.

“In fact, banks will soon be required to disclose the climate liabilities associated with the money they lend. They might choose not to fund a project that will have a significant carbon impact,” says Mark Hutchinson, Vice President, Green Building Programs and Innovation, Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC).

Many third-party certifications have been created to assess a building’s environmental footprint. Our guide will take you through the most common and credible green building standards in Canada.

Table of contents:

What is LEED?

LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification, is a point-based system used in more than 167 countries around the world to evaluate buildings’ sustainability.

LEED in a nutshell

Program administrator website
Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC)

Cost
Depending on rating system, type and size of building. For example, the fee for a new commercial building of up to 2,500 m2 is $7,250, while the cost of certifying an existing building of the same size is $4,350.

Eligibility
All building types, all new land development or existing communities (city sub-sections).

Recertification frequency
Every three years.

Holding the LEED certification signifies that a building uses sustainable products and practices that conserve resources, reduces carbon emissions, lowers operating costs, and creates a healthier environment.

When the program began almost 30 years ago, it was intended for new “green” buildings, but it has “grown and evolved” over the years to also include retrofitted older buildings, according to Mark Hutchinson.

“LEED focuses on sustainability—and that means impact on the environment and the occupants. Because a building can't be considered sustainable if it's not a healthy place,” says Hutchinson.

Projects pursuing the LEED certification earn points for green building strategies across several categories, such as sustainable construction practices, materials used, carbon emissions, energy efficiency and water use.

Each element is weighted differently. For new constructions, Hutchinson says the focus is on the materials used. “That’s because the choice of materials has a heavy impact on the carbon emissions associated with construction as well as the health implications for people in the building.”

Depending on the number of points achieved, a project or building earns one of four LEED rating levels, with Platinum being the highest.

  • Certified (40 to 49 points)
  • Silver (50 to 59 points)
  • Gold (60 to 79 points)
  • Platinum (80+ points)

Types of LEED certifications

Building Design and Construction (BD+C)—for all new buildings or buildings undergoing major renovations, including schools, warehouses, health care facilities, distribution centres and more

Interior Design and Construction (ID+C)—for projects that retrofit building interiors, including commercial interiors

Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M)—for existing buildings and spaces that are being improved with little or no actual construction work

Homes—for single-family homes, low-rise multi-family buildings (one to three storeys) or multi-family mid-rise buildings (four or more storeys)

LEED focuses on sustainability—and that means impact on the environment and the occupants. Because a building can't be considered sustainable if it's not a healthy place.

Steps to LEED certification

Once you have decided which LEED program best meets your goals (such as BD+C, ID+C, or O+M), the next steps are to:

  1. Determine which LEED rating system you are eligible for.
  2. Register your project online and pay the registration fee.
  3. Prepare and submit your certification application, which will be reviewed by CAGBC.
  4. Pay the certification fee once your project has qualified.

Benefits of LEED

LEED promotes environmentally responsible design, construction and operational practices for new buildings. It also promotes lower carbon emissions, energy use, waste and water use for existing buildings, prioritizes safer materials and reduces occupants’ exposure to toxins.

As an internationally renowned standard, LEED also demonstrates to clients and tenants that you’re serious about sustainability.

LEED also provides a framework that sets out the most important steps that builders and building owners can take to minimize a building’s harmful impacts on the environment and human health.

What is ENERGY STAR?

The ENERGY STAR certification distinguishes the most energy efficiency buildings by benchmarking them against their peers, using a very large dataset of tens of thousands of buildings in Canada.

ENERGY STAR in a nutshell

Program administrator
Natural Resources Canada in Partnership with EnerQuality

Cost
No cost to apply for the certification, but a licensed professional will charge for their verification services.

Eligibility
All buildings—industrial, commercial, residential, office.

Recertification frequency
Annual

After an initial assessment, a building will get a score between 1 and 100—which represents a building’s energy use per square metre compared to other buildings of the same type. The higher the score, the more energy efficient the building is.

“To earn ENERGY STAR certification, a building owner has to benchmark at least 12 consecutive months of metered energy data and obtain an ENERGY STAR Score of 75 or higher,” says Hutchinson. “If you get a score of 75, it means that your building uses less energy than 75% of comparable buildings.”

The building owner must provide information about the building’s size and occupancy type as well as its energy use (based on natural gas, hydro and utilities bills). Based on that information, its energy use per square metre can be calculated and compared to other buildings in the dataset.

However, there needs to be sufficient data about similar buildings to determine that a building is in the 75th percentile. ENERGY STAR currently has data on 16 different building types in Canada—from offices and multi-family buildings, to apartment buildings and hotels.

Steps to ENERGY STAR certification

Follow these steps to get ENERGY STAR certified and ensure that your building is as energy efficient as possible:

  1. Register for ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, a free online tool.
  2. Benchmark your building with at least 12 consecutive months of metered energy data.
  3. Obtain an ENERGY STAR Score of 75 or higher.
  4. Start the online application.
  5. Hire a licensed professional to conduct a site visit to verify the information in your application.
  6. Complete the online application.

Benefits of the ENERGY STAR certification

The ENERGY STAR program is focused entirely on energy efficiency. But by reducing the amount of energy your building uses, you will also benefit from:

  • reduced operational costs
  • increased value of your building
  • reduced greenhouse gas emissions
  • higher rental and occupancy rates.

What is BOMA BEST?

BOMA BEST is one of Canada’s leading sustainable certification programs for existing buildings. It assesses a building’s energy use, water conservation, waste management, indoor air quality, environmental management systems and more. It then assigns the building a performance standing based on these criteria,

BOMA BEST in a nutshell

Program administrator website
Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada (BOMA Canada)

Cost
From $240 to $32,250, depending on the size and type of building.

Eligibility
Commercial and institutional buildings.

Recertification frequency
Every three years

Tailored to Canada’s environmental priorities, regulations and industry standards, the BOMA BEST program is a widely adopted, recognized and respected sustainability standard for building owners and managers across the country.

That said, BOMA BEST has a few relevant programs to meet a building owner’s or manager’s needs:

  • BOMA BEST Sustainable—focused on sustainability and environmental impacts.
  • BOMA BEST Smart—focused on a building’s smart features, such as security, operations, monitoring and tracking.

BOMA BEST Sustainable is most used and provides a roadmap for building owners and managers to improve the sustainability of their properties and reduce their environmental impact. By using a questionnaire designed to score the building, owners and managers can understand what steps they need to take to meet various certification thresholds that range from “Platinum” standing to “Baseline.”

To explain more about these performance standings, the first is Baseline—which is an entry point for buildings that meet the minimum requirements of the BOMA BEST program. Beyond Baseline, there are four levels, determined based on how much of the questionnaire has been achieved:

  • Bronze—30% to 59%
  • Silver—60% to 79%
  • Gold—80% to 89%
  • Platinum—90% or higher

Benefits of BOMA BEST

A BOMA BEST Sustainable certification demonstrates a building owner’s commitment to sustainability and environmental responsibility. It can also make a building more marketable and attractive to environmentally conscious tenants.

The program also offers building owners ongoing support, resources and training to assist with continuous improvement and sustainability efforts.

If you are a tenant in a BOMA-certified building, Hutchinson says you could lower your operating costs thanks to energy efficiency and water conservation measures.

“BOMA BEST doesn’t just look at energy efficiency—it’s holistic. It looks at everything from energy use to water conservation, to the chemicals or the cleaning products you use,” says Hutchinson. “You might also see decreased sick days and higher productivity because the building provides a healthier work environment for your employees.”

The BOMA BEST Sustainable certification is an excellent entry point for businesses who are just starting out on their path towards being more sustainable.

“It prompts you with questions like: Have you retrofitted your lighting systems to LED? Have you replaced the water fixtures in bathrooms? When you’re just starting out and looking for ideas for what you can do to improve, it can be very helpful,” says Hutchinson.

BOMA BEST doesn’t just look at energy efficiency—it’s holistic. It looks at everything from energy use to water conservation, to the chemicals or the cleaning products you use.

Steps to BOMA BEST certification

There are three key steps in the BOMA BEST certification process:

  1. Self-assessment. Building owners or managers complete an online questionnaire covering a wide range of sustainability criteria.
  2. Verification. A qualified BOMA BEST assessor reviews the questionnaire and conducts an on-site verification to confirm the information.
  3. Certification and recognition. Once the verification process is complete, the building receives the certification, based on the score achieved.

What is the Green Globes certification?

Green Globes is led by the Green Building Initiative (GBI) and is a comprehensive, three-in-one certification system that evaluates the environmental sustainability, health & wellness, and resilience of all types of commercial real estate.

Green Globes in a nutshell

Program administrator website
Green Building Initiative

Cost
Project registration ($2,000); existing buildings final assessment ($5,100 - $21,250, depending on building area)

Eligibility
Commercial new construction and existing buildings

Recertification frequency
18 months – requires recertification through BOMA BEST for existing buildings

Green Globes certifies projects that meet at least 35% of the 1,000 points for the project. Their approach is designed to create the most sustainable outcomes and considers the building’s type, its location and the needs of its occupants.

Steps to Green Globes certification

  1. Create a GBI account
  2. Add a project and select a Green Globes program to gain access to the questionnaire in trial mode.
  3. Register the project to gain full access to the questionnaire.
  4. Request a quote and purchase assessment services.
  5. Work with a Green Globes Assessor to complete one or more third-party assessments.
  6. Receive a final report containing your Green Globes rating and certificate.

What is the Living Building Challenge?

Regardless of the size or location of the project, the Living Building Challenge provides a framework for design, construction and the relationship between people, our community, and nature.

Living Building Challenge in a nutshell

Program administrator website
International Living Future Institute

Cost
Depends on project size and complexity.

Eligibility
Residential, commercial, institutional, also landscape and infrastructure. Minimum of 12 months in operation in order to evaluate actual building performance.

The Living Building Challenge aims to recognize projects that restore the relationship between people and nature in an increasingly urbanized world.

Steps to get Living Building Challenge certification

  1. Obtain a Premium Membership with the International Living Future Institute.
  2. Provide basic information about the project and pay the registration fee.
  3. Upload the documentation required for certification.
  4. Notify the Institute that the project is ready by email.
  5. Pay the certification fee.
  6. Complete the certification audit.

What is the Net Zero Home Labelling Program?

The Net Zero Home Labelling Program is intended for residential homes. The program provides the industry and consumers with a clearly defined and rigorous two-tiered technical requirement that recognizes Net Zero and Net Zero Ready Homes, and the builders and renovators who provide them.

Net Zero in a nutshell

Program administrator website
Canadian Home Builders Association (CHBA)

Cost
Participant Registration Fees ($51 - $255) + Home Registration Fees ($102)

Eligibility
Residential, new and existing buildings, single and multi-family.

Recertification frequency
Annual

What are Zero Carbon Building (ZCB) Standards?

The Zero Carbon Building Standards provide a framework to assess a building’s carbon performance. The standards can apply to all buildings except single-family homes and multi-family residential buildings up to three storeys or 600 square metres in size.

Zero Carbon Building Standards in a nutshell

Program administrator website
Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC)

Cost
Based on project’s certification pathway and size. Zero Carbon Building-Design: registration fees start at $2,750; certification fees start at $3,520. Zero Carbon Building-Performance: no registration fees; certification fees start at $1,500.

Eligibility
All buildings over three storeys or 600 square metres in size can be certified to the Design standard.

Recertification frequency
Annual.

There are two standards:

  • The Zero Carbon Building Design Standard guides the design of new buildings or retrofits.
  • The Zero Carbon Building Performance Standard looks at the operation phase of an existing building’s lifecycle and the impact of its operation in terms of climate change.

A building can earn both standards, but not at the same time, explains Mark Hutchinson.

“For a new building, you would pursue the Zero Carbon Building Design standard. Its requirements help ensure that after a year of operation, you can go on to pursue the Zero Carbon Building Performance Standard,” he says. “The information that goes into achieving the ZCB standards is actually very straightforward. You have to be able to demonstrate how you're balancing carbon-emitting sources with clean energy sources and offsets.”

Whether you’re planning a new design or a retrofit, note that the standards also impose:

  • limits to onsite combustion (burning fuels or biomass to generate heat or energy)
  • thresholds for energy efficiency
  • requirements related to the use of refrigerants, peak energy demand and airtightness

In addition, a building that has onsite combustion (for example, a natural gas boiler) must develop a decarbonization transition plan (a plan to move away from onsite combustion). Similarly, there should be a plan for how mechanical systems, such as those for heating, cooling and ventilation, will evolve over time.

Despite all this, certification is not as onerous as it might seem, says Hutchinson. Unlike some other sustainability-related building certifications that look at a wide range of environmental aspects, this one focuses solely on carbon.

The information that goes into being certified is actually very straightforward. You have to be able to demonstrate how you're balancing carbon-emitting sources with clean energy sources and offsets.

Steps to get Zero Carbon Building Standards certification

To get certified, you need to gather your building’s performance data and submit it to the Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC). But preceding that final task is series of other steps, starting with understanding the standard.

If the building is new, the next steps are to:

  • establish the desired level of carbon reduction
  • set a timeline for achieving net zero
  • design and construct the building
  • implement measures to maximize energy efficiency
  • incorporate onsite renewable energy systems, if possible (such as solar panels or geothermal systems)

You’ll also need to conduct energy modelling and analysis to evaluate the building’s anticipated energy performance and ensure compliance with the standard. Once building systems are in place, commission and test them to ensure they are working optimally. You will also need to implement sustainable operations and maintenance practices.

Benefits of Zero Carbon Building Standards

The Zero Carbon Building Standards define low-carbon design and operational performance for buildings. They offer both rigour and flexibility, opening the door for all buildings to minimize their climate impact.

A zero-carbon building can reduce your operating and construction costs, provide a healthier environment, and lead to greater long-term resilience and associated lower maintenance costs.

Some provinces in Canada generate electricity from mainly or exclusively renewable, carbon-free sources. Buildings in those provinces that rely on electric power for heat will have fewer emissions—although few is not the same as none, notes Hutchinson. “You do still have emissions, so there’s always going to be that balance.”

Of course, the construction process itself generates emissions, as does the production of concrete, steel, aluminum, glass and other building materials. But the standards take all these factors into account.

Ready to get your building certified? Discover our advisory solutions for certifications and our financing options.

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