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World Canadian architect living in China hailed as ‘guiding light’ in the pursuit of healthier buildings

Raefer Wallis photographed as the One Museum Place is seen behind him in Shanghai, China, April 20th 2019. Raefer Wallis, a former architect is the CEO and creator of "Reset", a platform that monitors real time indoor health data in buildings.

Raul Ariano/The Globe and Mail

When Raefer Wallis graduated from university nearly two decades ago, Quebec was hardly the best place on Earth for a new architect. In the grip of a recession, things were slow.

Mr. Wallis began to scout for the busiest place he could find.

On Jan. 3, 2002, he landed in Shanghai, a city in the grip of the construction burst that fashioned the concrete-and-glass underpinnings of China’s emergence as a rising superpower, with its cities erecting some of the planet’s most audacious buildings.

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But Mr. Wallis made his name with a very different kind of design, bringing a carbon-neutral hotel to Asia, a Shanghai boutique property named URBN that was marketed as a first of its kind and built with a raw wood aesthetic that avoided manufactured materials with off-gassing glues.

URBN positioned Mr. Wallis not just as a rising talent but as a pioneer in healthy buildings. After it opened in 2008, he had “a ton of firms coming in and saying, ‘A green hotel in China? That’s not possible.’”

In the years since, Mr. Wallis has taken that experience onto a much more global stage, becoming what environmental engineering consultant Alessandro Bisagni calls a “guiding light” for an industry in the midst of a broad reckoning about the spaces it creates.

Modern urbanites spend roughly 90 per cent of their time indoors, and the air-quality fears stoked by outdoor smog – through the circulation of photos of “airpocalypse” events in China, but also the rise of pollution warnings in major Western cities such as Paris, London and Toronto – have also begun to raise consciousness about what people inhale indoors.

“The concept of health and wellness inside spaces – it’s all everybody talks about in the industry,” said Mr. Bisagni, whose BEE Incorporations helps retail stores obtain green certification.

From his base in Shanghai, Mr. Wallis has come to occupy an important place in that shift. He has written standards for indoor air quality monitoring and reporting. He has employed cloud computing and internet-connected sensors to ease the selection of green construction materials and provide new ways to monitor buildings, all while eliciting new profits – for hotels, which can market clean air to boost room rates, and for companies, which can provide more productive workspaces for their employees.

His company, GIGA, is a “humble, brilliant organization,” whose modest size belies global influence, said Lisa Bate, the global sustainability lead with B+H Architects who chairs the World Green Building Council. “Typical Canadians – punching way above their weight.”

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“What we’re tackling,” Mr. Wallis said, “is essentially figuring out the health profile of buildings. That sounds somewhat unsexy – but it’s just understanding how healthy or unhealthy are buildings for us. And to do that you need to know the ingredients that go in and you need to measure the final outcome.”

He began with a small database of the products used to build URBN, which he posted online so he wouldn’t have to field queries about where he sourced the material. It was a way of telling “people to go away,” he said.

“And I failed. Miserably.”

People wanted more, including information on how materials were evaluated. It was tough to sort fact from fiction. Some manufacturers digitally altered product certificates to suggest green credentials they didn’t actually possess. So Mr. Wallis and his team transformed the database into a digital data hub, where products are matched with testing certificates that come directly from the certification bodies.

That hub, called Origin, today boasts more than 135,000 materials from nearly 3,500 manufacturer brands and has ambitions of becoming the LinkedIn of construction materials – matching buyers and sellers of all sorts.

Even as the data began to accumulate, however, Mr. Wallis wanted to know how to measure the ways all those better materials actually came together in a building, to “track and see if it’s working.”

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The Reset device shows the quality of the air inside One Museum Place, in Shanghai, China.

Raul Ariano/The Globe and Mail

Sorting that out has become its own business, called Reset, which has involved not only evaluating the sensors that can accurately measure air quality, but also drafting a set of standards about where to install them and how to report their data – and then offering a service to monitor the results.

Think of the monitors as a Fitbit for buildings and Reset, as Mr. Wallis puts it, as “the doctor for buildings, making sense of the Fitbit data.”

Interest in air has been promoted in part by a series of Harvard-led studies. One showed that better air quality can dramatically improve a person’s cognitive function. Another showed that fresh air brought in through more active building ventilation yielded an 8-per-cent improvement in worker performance – a benefit to employers far outweighing the estimated US$40 added operations costs.

“What’s the payback [time]? It’s a day and a half,” Mr. Wallis said.

Such research coincides with changing perspectives of property developers and some of the world’s top firms have begun to use Reset.

The Reset system, with the detail it provides on carbon dioxide, volatile organic compounds and fine particulate matter, “becomes a differentiator for us,” said Bob Pratt, co-head of global design and construction for Tishman Speyer, whose portfolio includes the Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building. “People can point to it in a definable, measurable way and say, ‘These guys are delivering something that is good for us. It’s good for our people, it’s good for productivity.’”

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Mr. Wallis is “at the forefront” of that shift, said Derek Hrzek, a senior associate with Hines, whose broad global portfolio includes CIBC Square in Toronto. “To the best of my knowledge, there are no alternatives for communicating air quality performance on an ongoing basis,” he said. But, he added, “It’s just apparent that the whole world will be doing something like this very soon.”

The innovations Mr. Wallis has backed have broader application, too. His most recent endeavour, launched to coincide with Earth Day this year, involves installing a new generation of less costly air monitors at Canadian embassies in Beijing, Hanoi, Delhi and Seoul, part of a plan to blanket the world in “micro-grids” of relatively inexpensive devices that can offer detailed reporting of air quality.

Mr. Wallis, meanwhile, continues to pursue new ideas, including a radical new way of looking at buildings themselves. Think of them not as structures, he says. Think of them as storehouses in a resource-constrained world.

“Buildings are really just banks, holding valuable materials for several decades,” he said.

Ultimately, he said, “healthier buildings have a healthy legacy as well.”

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