In Montreal, Saint-Laurent borough Mayor Alan DeSousa has a seemingly straightforward goal: to promote green roofs on private sector developments.
DeSousa, who received the 2014 Government Leadership award from the Canadian Green Building Council (CaGBC), says that the administration started off by promoting sustainable development on its own buildings. He points to the recent Bibliothèque du Boisé, a $30-million project that features a green roof and is aiming for LEED gold. But he wasn’t content just setting a good example.
When the borough had a development opportunity for a large parcel of land – the new phase of the Bois-Franc mixed-use development – it opened discussions with developers by outlining the desire for green or white roofs on all future buildings. The developers agreed.
“We studied these and we approved them in our urban planning committee meeting and we gave council approval as early as last August,” DeSousa recounts.
However, earlier in the year, the Régie du Batîment du Quebec (RBQ), the Province’s building overseer, came out saying that green roofs weren’t addressed under the National Building Code of Canada. It announced that the Province would be studying and creating its own construction guidelines – throwing a wrench into the Saint-Laurent development, leaving the project’s green roofs in a sort of limbo until the guidelines are released.
“We have been in the works over the last two to two-and-a-half years, working with developers, negotiating the requirements, getting the agreements to council, doing the zoning changes,” DeSousa says. “Here [the RBQ] are announcing something that would slow down the process, and we were ready to go.”
According to a representative of the RBQ, some of the concerns about green roofs include code compliance regarding fire resistance, structural integrity, wind resistance and maintenance.
The RBQ completed a primary green roof consultation process in early 2014, and many thought the guidelines would be released in summer or fall 2014. Now, the RBQ says there’s a secondary consultation in the works. No target release date has been given.
Meanwhile, at an August general meeting, DeSousa’s council approved up to three projects with green roofs, and also passed a resolution urging the RBQ to accelerate the release of its guidelines. The Province has been silent in response.
“To this date, I have not received anything that would tell me where they are along in their thinking,” DeSousa reports.
SAFETY CONCERNS CITED IN SLOWDOWN
Green roofs are a murky concept in Quebec and across Canada. The National Building Code of Canada is silent when it comes to green roof construction standards.
In July 2013, Montreal developed its own municipal green roof standards – the first in the province – but it only applies to smaller buildings under the city’s jurisdiction. Large projects, such as the Bois-Franc development in Saint-Laurent, come under provincial oversight.
“We have jurisdiction over small residential buildings two-storeys high and maximum eight apartments,” explains Richard Arteau, planning advisor with the city of Montreal. (Also included are industrial buildings and small commercial properties.)
Properties that fit Montreal’s profile simply go to their borough to get a permit. “Since it’s not possible to build a green roof rightfully [in Quebec], each and every project is studied here,” Arteau says.
Applicants go through the central urban planning department, where a technical committee reviews every project. Since the guide came into effect last year, only a handful of projects have been submitted.
Buildings that fall under the RBQ’s jurisdiction also have the option of including green roofs though an “equivalent measures” request. But, as Owen Rose of Rose Architecture experienced first hand, it is not an easy process.
“In theory you can get permission. But if you do the special measures request: number one, it could take up to six months; and number two, the requirements they have that you have to meet in order to get your green roof approved are extremely, extremely stringent,” says Rose, who is also a board member at the Montreal Urban Ecology Centre.
Since green roofs are not code-conforming under the National Building Code, the Province has started looking at requirements from around the world and has picked out the toughest regulations found to ensure public safety.
“They’ve required green roofs in Montreal to be built to withstand Floridian hurricanes, San Francisco earth quakes and Japanese tsunami,” Rose says. “It’s not impossible [to build], but it’s discouraging.”
Until provincial guidelines are released, developers and clients have no idea what is officially required when constructing a green roof, what the costs will be, and how long the process will take. Rose maintains that this compromises the business case for green roofs. Developers and clients are somewhat gambling on whether they should focus their energy and money on the green roof or something else.
“In my opinion, the mentality of the RBQ, being that it is 100 per cent about public security, is that the fewer green roofs built in Quebec, the better,” Rose asserts. “So if they have discouraged green roofs, then, in fact, they are happy.”
Other Canadian cities have effectively dealt with green roof construction standards. In Toronto, the city not only allows green roofs, but they are even required in some new developments.
Jane Welsh, acting project manager for environmental planning, explains that the green roof bylaw was only possible due to new powers that Toronto received from the province of Ontario in the City of Toronto Act. It explicitly allows for a bylaw requiring vegetative roofs and the ability to govern their construction.
The bylaw and construction standards, which came into effect in February 2010, apply to all buildings with a gross floor area of 2,000 square metres (21,500 square feet) or greater. The size of green roof coverage then goes on a sliding scale, depending on the size of the building, ranging from 20 per cent of available roof space to 60 per cent. To date, 123 building permits have been issued for green roofs required under the bylaw.
“You’re starting to see the build-out now,” Welsh says. “You’ll start to see quite the transformation in the city as a whole.”
Back in Montreal, the development and design sectors are trying to make their voices heard during the creation of Quebec’s green roof construction guidelines. The Quebec Chapter of the CaGBC helped put together a green roof task force last summer, with the goal of uniting all stakeholders. They are also attempting to start a dialogue with the RBQ.
“We have invited [the RBQ] to join a one-day conference that we will organize on the issue of the green roof future of Quebec,” says Bruno Demers, director of education and research at the CaGBC’s Quebec chapter.
The task force, which includes Owen Rose, is still waiting for an answer.
As for the Bois-Franc project, DeSousa reports that the developers have completed all the steps necessary to move forward. The buildings are going to get built, but without the green roofs unless the provincial guidelines are completed soon.
“That’s the sad part about it. Here you have a community and a developer who are willing to walk the walk, not just talk the talk,” he says. “And we’re impeded by the fact that something that can and should have been done is now being slowed down.”
While DeSousa recognizes the RBQ’s responsibility to ensure public safety, he argues it also has a role in supporting sustainable development.
“We do have a commitment, both provincially and municipally, to reduce greenhouse gases, to reduce the heat island effect,” he notes. “In that regard, I think they’ve got to recognize that they have an obligation to move quickly.”
If the guidelines, when eventually released, are practical and pragmatic, they could facilitate and help to encourage green roof development. However, DeSousa is wary of another potential outcome.
“If the guidelines come back and come down where we’re heavy, bureaucratic and dissuasive, then it could definitely impede the proliferation of green roofs in Montreal and across Quebec,” he says.
Daniel Viola is an editor and journalist based in Montreal.
This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Canadian Property Management.
Photo by Jean-Guy Lambert.