The Green Standards of Toronto

by Marcus Mitanis

Canada is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world, says a new federal government report. And no jurisdiction in the country is immune to the growing threat of the extreme weather events produced by a changing climate. Canada’s largest city experienced this new normal first-hand in 2013, when a double whammy of severe weather in the form of an ice storm and a summer flood – the most costly natural disaster in Toronto history – wreaked havoc on homes, the power grid, and Toronto’s extensive tree canopy. Another summer flood in 2017 raised Lake Ontario water levels to record highs and shuttered ferry access to the Toronto Islands, one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. The resulting damage to the park would require at least $8.45 million to repair. It was a wake-up call for many Torontonians, and exactly the type of climate episode the City is trying to mitigate.

how Canadian cities can tackle a global climate change crisis

With more than 80 percent of the country’s population living in urban areas, the role of municipalities in reducing greenhouse gas emissions cannot be underestimated. The majority of greenhouse gas emissions – 45 percent – comes primarily from homes and buildings. Another 35 percent are generated by transportation, largely personal vehicles: a symptom of Canada’s auto-oriented land use structure.

As a seemingly infinite building boom alters the skyline, Toronto’s vision to transform itself into a low-carbon city is more relevant than ever. The population and economy have grown alongside a 33 percent reduction in emissions from 1990 levels. But City officials are aiming for higher targets. The TransformTO climate action strategy sets greenhouse gas reduction targets of 30 percent by 2020, 65 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050, all based on 1990 levels. The changes require a fundamental rethink in Torontonians’ daily routines, and a corresponding evolution in construction and building standards.

One of the instruments behind realizing this low-carbon future is the Toronto Green Standard. First introduced in 2006 as a voluntary framework for new development, the tool has since advanced into a requirement mandated in the planning approval process. The Toronto Green Standard responds to the city’s environmental priorities by enforcing performance measures with regard to air quality, energy efficiency, greenhouse gas emissions and resilience, water quality, ecology, and solid waste. The energy efficiency segment uses the Ontario Building Code as a benchmark, and compels new developments to go above and beyond those rules. For each building type, the Toronto Green Standard lays out specific requirements for total energy use intensity, thermal energy demand intensity, and greenhouse gas intensity. For example, performance measures related to air quality prescribe materials to reduce the urban heat island effect and regulate minimum parking spaces for bicycles and electric vehicle infrastructure. Pedestrian comfort and connectivity are also addressed through a series of distinct metrics around sidewalk space, weather protection and lighting.

Toronto Green Standard, Version 3 was released in 2018 and binds all new planning applications to Tier 1 performance measures. Projects that commit to levels of performance at Tiers 2, 3 or 4 may be eligible for a partial refund on development charges paid to the city, a financial incentive awarded to resource-efficient developments that reduce pressure on city services. The program lowers the upfront capital cost of projects to encourage the design-build of high-performing buildings. By 2017, 1,500 developments had been required to meet Tier 1 of the Toronto Green Standard. Since the program was adopted in 2010, 22 projects have been certified and received refunds for achieving the program’s higher certification levels.

A 29-storey residential tower built at the corner of Bay and Dundas Streets, just north of Toronto City Hall, was one of the very first rental buildings to achieve Tier 2 certification. It includes smart sub-metering of utilities in every suite, allowing each resident to monitor electricity and water usage and experience direct cost saving benefits through conservation. In addition to energy-efficient indoor lighting and appliances, the exterior of the structure is softened by green roofs on multiple levels, reducing stormwater runoff and the urban heat island effect. All landscaping on the property is also irrigated using harvested rainwater stored in a cistern tank.

But it’s not just projects in the downtown core that have committed to higher standards. At 2205 Sheppard Avenue in the former borough of North York, two residential, 578-suite towers attained Tier 2 status. Sustainability features including several green roofs with native plant species, 137 parking spaces equipped for electric vehicles, 451 bicycle storage spaces, rainwater harvesting, energy recovery ventilators, and sub-meters in every suite ensure the project maximizes health and comfort for residents. The development’s green credentials also received Gold certification under LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), the most widely used green building rating system in the world.

Provincial efforts are also being made to encourage the construction of high-performing buildings by adding rigorous energy efficiency requirements to the Ontario Building Code, prescribing rules related to everything from the external building envelope and insulation to drain water heat and energy recovery ventilators. Federal officials are now developing an update to the National Building Code of Canada, the model building code that informs provincial regulations, which may also bring a host of new climate change adaptive measures to take effect in 2025.


Most multi-storey structures in Toronto are constructed with concrete or steel. But a resurgence in tall wood building construction across North America has led to legislative changes in multiple jurisdictions, including Ontario. A 2014 amendment to the province’s Building Code loosened the maximum height of wood-frame buildings, allowing construction of up to six storeys from the previous limit of four. Offering a structurally comparable alternative to concrete and steel construction, wood buildings act as carbon sequesters, and lower construction-related greenhouse gas emissions by evading energy-intensive materials. Looking beyond the environmental lens, wood buildings are generally cheaper and faster to construct. Taking effect in 2015, the new provisions are accompanied by fire safety enhancements. Site-specific exemptions to the Ontario Building Code have granted authority for some projects to exceed the six-storey limit, including a 14-storey building on the University of Toronto’s downtown campus that is poised to become the tallest mass-timber-and-concrete hybrid building on the continent.

Additional voluntary programs are making a difference and ensuring new construction is sustainable and energy efficient. EnerQuality operates the Energy Star program for new homes in Ontario. Described as “market transformation” and “the code of tomorrow, today” by President of EnerQuality Corey McBurney, the program encourages businesses to push higher than the minimum standard. The performance-tested, third-party verified, government-backed brand launched a multifamily program in 2018 that extends efficiency certifications to mid- and high-rise residential projects. “We train the industry on building science, advanced building systems, technologies and the like, on quality construction methods, everything that goes into what we call ‘better built homes’,” says McBurney. On average, for the past ten years, 24 percent of Ontario homes have been certified under the program.

While meeting energy efficiency targets does add upfront capital costs to homes, that money is almost immediately recouped by homeowners who save big on their energy bill. “If your house is poorly insulated and very leaky you’re constantly losing heat through radiation, conduction and convection. Even if you have a great furnace, you constantly have to replenish that heat,” says McBurney. “Build homes like we do now, to these higher standards, and the systems have to work a lot less.”

The Energy Star program’s standards focus on housing innovation, and are often a harbinger of future legislative requirements in the Ontario Building Code. Builders and industry professionals who take the step to educate, train and certify are then prepared for these upcoming changes. “What we’re asking builders for is well under one percent of the construction cost,” explains McBurney. “Energy Star is not radical, it’s incremental.” The ultimate goal is to reach net zero – homes that produce as much energy as they consume – by 2030.

100 Resilient Cities

Toronto’s accession to the network in 2016 demonstrated the commitment of local leaders to confront the social, economic and environmental challenges facing the city. The global community of cities pioneered by The Rockefeller Foundation collaborates to strengthen urban resilience in the 21st century. One of the salient elements of a comprehensive Resilience Strategy now being finalized addresses climate change. Vulnerable to numerous climate-related “shocks” including flooding, blizzards and heat waves, the strategy will identify synergies between climate adaptation action and the TransformTO strategy.

Recent years have given Toronto a bitter taste of climate change. The physical and economic scars left behind have sparked a concerted effort across government and industry to tackle the worst effects of what’s already happening and what’s to come. A worldwide wave of mass protests and grassroots movements are pushing climate change to the top of the global agenda. And where national and provincial policies fail to go far enough, municipalities must rise to the challenge. Cities across Canada, including Vancouver and Hamilton, are declaring climate emergencies. They recognize their contributions to the climate change crisis and are now attempting remediation. Home to the vast majority of Canada’s 37 million people, cities are where the population will face the brunt of climate inaction – and also climate action!

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