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Olympic village: The cost of green design + why Millennium was chosen

January 11th, 2009 · 5 Comments

As people post their comments, it reminds to add other little bits and pieces of information that I know.

1. Michael Geller wondered how much the city’s standards for environmental design added to the project. General manager Hank Jasper told me, when I had my tour of this site this week, that his estimate was about 10 per cent added to the regular construction cost. He and design manager Roger Bayley also talked about the fact that, for some of the elements (say, installing the capillary mats that do the heating), it required having to provide some training for the workers doing it.

2. I am sure that in the coming months, we will hear more from the Vision crew about how and why the city staff team came to choose the Millennium bid over the Wall and Concord Pacific bids on the project. As everyone has heard around town, the Millennium bid of $193 million was considerably higher than the next closest bids.

But I had also heard that one of the attractions of the Millennium bid was that Millennium promises to build the complete site, whereas the others were going to do it in phases. At least one bidder, Concord, had planned to build 2,000 condos on that land, by building smaller units, and it would have only done the first 1,100 needed for the athletes in the first phase. But the city team wanted to be able to show off a completed project to the world.

3. An earlier poster commented that it’s a sign of a doomed project when the builders start boasting about their design. While there are a lot of criticisms that can now be levelled in hindsight at this project, I have to point out that the focus on environmental design and design aimed at producing an inter-connected community was there from the start. I sat through more than a few urban-design panel discussions three years ago when this was all being thrashed out.

By the way, if anyone wants a more thorough look at the site than my Globe story had room for, I found this interesting slide show from the city’s deputy city manager and Southeast False Creek manager, Jody Andrews, who was showing off the site’s design and environmental features to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, it looks like.

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  • I think it would be wonderful if the city would show Jody Andrews Powerpoint presentation at tomorrow’s briefing. If nothing else, it helps explain what the city is trying to create, and why this ultimately will be a highly acclaimed neighbourhood, albeit a potentially very costly one for the city.

    Now a quick story re: costs associated with green features. When we were designing the Cornerstone building at UniverCity, it was suggested that we meet LEED certification standards since it would be the first mixed-use certified building in Canada. One of the engineers suggested a heat recovery ventilation system, which would capture heat from the building, including the refrigerators, and reuse it. I was told the additional cost would be very modest.

    While I was nervous about the idea since it had never been done in a similar building, I was eventually convinced to proceed. But when I looked at the final plans, I noticed that the engineers had lowered the ceiling height in a long corridor to 7 feet in order to accommodate their additional ducts. I didn’t think this was acceptable.

    We explored other solutions, including placing the duct system on the roof, but that introduced potential water penetration problems. In the end, we decided to increase the height of the entire floor from 8 feet to 9 feet. This improved the look of the corridor and the small rental units, but added considerably to the overall cost.

    So the question is, was this an additional cost associated with achieving LEED certification? and the answer? of course not!

    Some of you might be interested in the following excerpt from an article by Lloyd Alter of Toronto:

    “Nic Darling of the 100K house project was asked why houses designed to LEED standards cost more than normal houses and responded that, well, actually, they don’t have to, and that he was building a LEED Platinum house that was going to cost less.

    The next question of course is why? It was a question I had no concise answer to until a few days ago when an acquaintance, who wishes to remain anonymous, gave me a piece of her grandmother’s wisdom in explanation . . . “It is because they’re polishing a turd.”

    It is a point that I have tried to make many times: instead of adding solar panels and ground source heat pumps, design in proper roof overhangs for shading, or plant a tree; do the simple things instead of adding expensive high tech.

    Nic continues: OK, so it’s a bit harsh. Turd is maybe an unnecessarily rude word to use to describe what are often pretty nice homes, but the concept is sound. Most of the builders and developers reporting high premiums for pursuing LEED are still trying to build the exact same home they have always built. They are simply adding features to make that same house energy efficient, healthy and sustainable. This addition gets expensive….

    So, they polish the turd… they add solar panels, geothermal systems, high end interior fixtures, extra insulation and other green features. The house gets greener. It gets certified, but it also increases significantly in cost. ”

    I share this because some of the projects for the homeless on the 12 city sites are also extremely expensive due in part to achieving LEED Gold standards. Yes, let’s try and be the greenest city in the world. But hopefully we can achieve this in an intelligent manner, rather than an expensive manner!

  • Wayne

    My sense is that we are getting sidetracked by the environmental costs item.

    Years ago, when SE False Creek first surfaced as a potential development it was intended to be 100% sustainable. (I’ll add here that my memory is always spotty on these things) As I recall what I read then, it was decided that the project had to be scaled back because the green goals, and the non-market housing component, would be too costly. And I gather that is what happened.

    Whether the construction costs of building green work out to be 10%, 20% or 0% of initial construction cost is only a part of the equation. Savings in future energy costs, reduced emissions and an overall smaller carbon footprint have to be factored in.

    If the city required all developments to conform to the highest green standards of the day (not necessarily the most expensive) this would be a moot point as all builders would be on the same page. But the code doesn’t require the highest standards so it makes a green building look more like an extravagance.

    It’s been a difficult struggle to get people in power to take the looming environmental catastrophe seriously. Now the economic crisis has managed, as I view it, to push the environment further back into the shadows.

    If, in an effort to salvage the Olympic Village, any of the green components are axed this will just add insult to injury. I haven’t seen this mentioned, it just seems like a possibility in an effort to cut costs.

  • Bill Lee

    Passive solar homes article in NYTimes says that the
    costs over other German homes are very little.
    Subject: The Energy Challenge – No Furnaces but Heat Aplenty in Innovative
    Passive Houses
    [In Germany]”passive houses cost only about 5 to 7 percent more to
    build than conventional houses.”

    However they use new materials, and this is only about heating,
    hot water etc. not electricity or other uses.

    Linkname: 15 years Passive House in Darmstadt – Kranichstein
    shows environmental results in graphs and tables.

    I’d prefer that, as part of the economic stimulus, the Federal
    government go on and retrofit all the living quarters, (hotels,
    houses etc.) of the poor to better insulation standards, free.
    How many are going to be shocked by their December and January
    heating bills in this recession and have not the savings to start
    any retrofit other than another 3 sweaters?

  • T W

    We should be grateful for Michael Geller’s thoughtful piece. He goes far to explain the fact or the presumed fact that the costs of going to green building under our existing market system far outweigh the savings in energy footprint even at outrageous levels of carbon tax.

    Perhaps one of our intrepid readers can tell me if anyone did an environmental cost/risk/benefit analysis of the Olympic Village plan. We do have a planning department at City Hall after all. Or do we?

  • zalm

    [b]Capillary mats! OMG![/b] Just ask Children’s Hospital, especially the HVAC department, how their first-time experiment with capillary mats is going? The Jean Matheson Pavilion was rebuilt a couple of years ago with them installed – second project in Canada, first in Western Canada with them, along with rooftoop dehumidification units for air exchange.

    What a disaster. The capillary mats are half a millimetre in diameter, so any tiny particle of crud could plug them. No problem you say?

    Well, filtering the incoming water would have worked, if they didn’t provide a bypass around the filter, so city water got in.

    The water used MUST be untreated, unlike any other heating or cooling system in the world, so all materials must be similar in construction to the mats. This is impossible, as you need at least brass or copper to provide connections to the system, which are subject to corrosion, especially in Vancouver’s acidic water. These little flakes – especially of cupric oxide, get into the mats and plug them up. As well, filtration of algaes and other sludge-producing organisms was not done – could not be done at the time, so the system is now contaminated.

    Added to that, despite the specification clearly written stated that no ferrous metals were to be used anywhere in the system, some were (brain farts, obviously, by workers who hadn’t done this before) necessitating remove, replacement and a c omplete cleaning of the system ($105,000 under warranty).

    But that wasn’t all. Despite guarantees that no ferrous metals were left in the system, the more than 100 zone valve stems were found to be ferrous when further problems occurred. Estimated cost to replace with plastic valves and re- flush and re-clean the system – $600,000.

    The system was designed as a 3-pipe reverse return system, but no controls nor piping adjuncts were provided to isolate the two loops, so the building cannot be heated and cooled at the same time as is usually the case in shoulder seasons (fall/spring). The only solution is to add a fourth pipe to isolate and balance the returns. No estimate on costs, but ballpark figures of just under a million.

    The dehumidification units were not well understood by the installers, and probably not well-designed, but this is impossible to ascertain, as the original engineer has left the scene and cannot be contacted to determine how the system was to operate. Of the nine refrigeration compressors for dehumidification, all have been replaced at least once due to overdriving, and two twice, all under warranty. The system has been detuned and now does not provide full power in order to prevent further damage. The heating loops have had to be repiped as well. Lost opportunity cost of full operation? Who knows.

    And none of this assumes that they won’t find more problems, since the system has never worked properly, nor been fully torn apart to determine the full scope of the damage before.

    The New Home Warranty Program at Olympic Village isn’t going to like this one.