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Edmonton office building pushes energy use to net zero

The $10.5-million Mosaic Centre, a privately constructed commercial building on the edge of Edmonton, is a net-zero building, meaning it roughly creates as much energy as it uses. Above, a portion of the roof with its array of solar panels.

Mosaic Family of Companies

Few developers talk about doing the right thing.

They talk specifically about sustainability and lower energy use, or healthier interiors and more human work environments, with more sunlight and designs to help casual interaction.

Engineer-businessman Dennis Cuku talks about these features, too, when discussing his new net-zero energy-consuming office building in Edmonton, which roughly creates as much energy as it uses. "On a day like today," he said on a recent sunny day, "when there's no way we can possibly use all the electricity that the roof is generating, the neighbouring community uses it."

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But he also steers the discussion back to ethics and obligation: "It's the right thing to do. If it's possible, and you don't do it, then that's ignorance."

He takes his eco-goals personally, as co-owner, with business partner and former spouse Christy Benoit, of the 30,000-square-foot Mosaic Centre for Conscious Community and Commerce, on the far south side of the city.

Commercial real-estate developers have been steadily going greener for years, with cleaner ventilation, better water and energy efficiency and better use of recyclable materials.

But the movement often seems propelled by larger projects: major developers answering the demands of major tenants, such as banks and large corporate tenants.

LEED Gold is the environmental certification standard most large office developers in Canada now aim for, said Thomas Mueller, president and chief executive of the Canada Green Building Council, an industry-led organization promoting pro-environmental certification and building practices.

What's less common are small, privately constructed offices, trying for top-level LEED Platinum designation and net-zero energy consumption. Yet, as with the Mosaic Centre, this is where much of the innovation and risks are taking place.

"Net-zero buildings are still unusual. It's because of the cost to get to a net-zero performance, whereas you can go for a LEED Gold performance, where the business case for those buildings is proven," Mr. Mueller said. "With a net-zero building, it's advanced technology, and there's a cost associated with it. These buildings are still rare."

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Ms. Benoit and Mr. Cuku had previously built a net-zero, solar-powered house and were utterly unsatisfied when investigating new office space for their company.

"Junk," is how Mr. Cuku described the office spaces he saw. "There wasn't enough fresh air. There weren't enough windows. It's just poorly designed construction. People need certain things in order to thrive and be productive. We couldn't find what we were looking for, so we decided to build it ourselves."

Hundreds have already come to visit the split-level building (three floors on the east side and two on the west) to see the array of features used to achieve net-zero energy use with its solar panels, large insulating windows, heat-recovery ventilators for heating the 100-per-cent fresh air in the building and numerous other energy-saving touches.

But, as Ms. Benoit said, her favourite part of leading tours of their $10.5-million Mosaic Centre is taking people upstairs, where visitors learn "that the anchor tenant of the most environmentally sustainable building in Alberta is actually an oil and gas company."

Their company, Oil Country Engineering, shares the space with sister company, Eco Ammo Sustainable Consulting. "There are all of these paradoxes that people have a hard time embracing," she said.

Other small tenants range from a small communications company and a human-rights lawyer to the director of the Solar Energy Society of Alberta and various consultants who are locating on a second-floor, open-concept shared business space. A downstairs daycare is in the process of being approved.

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"What always boggles me is when people ask, 'When did you start getting interested in sustainability?' And I always ask them, 'When did you stop?' " said Mr. Cuku, a mechanical engineer by training.

"Yeah, I design drilling rigs, that's what my background is," he said. But "we take our – not right now – but usually fairly decent oil profits and plow them back into the community, or into environmentally conscious projects like this."

Both Mr. Cuku and Ms. Benoit noted that the sudden slump in the energy sector has made the timing for opening the building a little unlucky. However, the financing plan for the building looks at a five-year horizon in terms of returns on investment, rather than immediate returns, Mr. Cuku said.

Regular banks were leery of the project. Financing instead came from the Business Development Bank of Canada, which basically issued a traditional mortgage with a regular amortization period. "There were no other grants that were applicable, other than us claiming a scientific research and development credit, which is a tax benefit," Mr. Cuku said.

He and Ms. Benoit are going for a campus feel for the building, hoping to attract a restaurant and fitness centre. Those leases haven't been finalized yet.

Office buildings typically cause 30 to 35 per cent of a city's carbon emissions, according to the Canada Green Building Council. In cities with better mass transit, the percentage of carbon emissions caused by office blocks can be as high as 70 per cent or more of a city's total.

To fight this, some are focusing on reducing energy use and creating enough energy through solar panels to achieve net-zero usage. Others are focusing on "passive houses," designed to use minimum energy in the first place. These are different methods toward a common goal, Mr. Mueller said.

Yet also "it raises the value of the building. In commercial real estate, they're doing it because it provides good return on investment," he said.

By the numbers

560: Solar panels on the building's rooftop, producing 193,200 watts of solar energy.

83: Solar panels on the side of the building, producing 20,750 watts of solar energy.

213,950: Watts of direct current: Total energy creation when all the panels are working. Net-zero means the building uses 213,950 watts or less.

Growth of LEED certified green office buildings in Canada

2014: Number of buildings certified LEED Gold: 46;

Number of buildings certified LEED Platinum: 3;

Total: 49.

2013: Gold 44, Platinum 6, Total 50.

2012: Gold 37, Platinum 5, Total 42.

2011: Gold 25, Platinum 5, Total 30.

2010: Gold 17, Platinum 4, Total 21.

Source: Canada Green Building Council

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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