If Toronto wants to achieve its tandem goals of growing its housing stock and curbing emissions from buildings, developers will need to embrace low-carbon building standards, experts say. Photos by Chloë Ellingson / The Local / The Narwhal

This story is part of our “Green* Economy” issue, a collaboration between The Local and The Narwhal.

In the hollow of the Don Valley, on the site of a historic brickyard and quarry, stands a nearly 70-year-old, 53,000-square-foot testament to the potential of Toronto’s carbon-neutral future.

The TD Future Cities Centre at Evergreen Brick Works, now used for sustainability conferences, exhibits, and community events, is a case study in climate-resilient and sustainable construction. In 2017, the former kiln building underwent a retrofit that targeted not just energy efficiency but also “embodied” carbon—the emissions baked into the building’s lifecycle, including material extraction, manufacturing, transport, construction, and demolition.

The renovation struck a careful balance between making do with the old and selectively building anew. The floor was raised to counter flood risk. New low-carbon materials were paired with recovered brick, cement, and metal from the existing structure. Geothermal and solar technology, which derive energy from the ground and the sun, were combined to store heat seasonally. By reusing existing material, the potential embodied carbon footprint was halved, the amount saved roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of 47 single-family homes in Toronto. When complete, the heating and cooling system will be 97 percent emissions neutral. In this way, a building that once fired the bricks that built Toronto has become part of the city’s climate solution.

Buildings are the largest source of greenhouse gases in Toronto, accounting for 56 percent of the city’s overall emissions as of 2021, surpassing both waste and transportation sectors, according to an annual report released by the city. As Toronto hurtles towards tandem goals of 65,000 new rent-controlled homes by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2040, all new and existing buildings will have to be designed and built to operate at near-zero carbon.

But the pathway to the city’s ambitious net-zero goals is blocked by corporate disinterest and gaps in funding. Most developers fail to see the financial benefits of greening their construction practices, leaving individual homeowners to shoulder the responsibility alongside an overcommitted, under-resourced municipal government. While some small companies and non-profits are trying to carry the torch, the only way to decarbonize Toronto’s buildings is mass commitment—and lots of cash.

The TD Future Cities Centre at Evergreen Brick Works in Toronto is a case study in climate-resilient and sustainable construction, using recycled, low-carbon materials and structural innovation to reduce emissions and be prepared for extreme weather.

“There’s definitely more people thinking about [green construction] than there were five years ago,” says Ryan Zizzo, founder and CEO of Mantle Developments, an engineering-based climate consultancy that worked on the transformation at the Future Cities Centre.

One of a handful of Canadian firms solely focused on low-carbon materials and construction, Mantle helps policymakers, manufacturers, developers, and builders prepare for upcoming climate targets. When the revitalization began in 2017, two years into Mantle’s operations, sustainable development practices weren’t standard in the industry. You couldn’t find many other construction sites in Canada employing new structural innovation to minimize materials, recycling pre-existing elements, or using low-carbon concrete.

“It’s still not the default,” adds Zizzo. Big players in sustainability, like Tridel, the Daniels Corporation, and Windmill Developments, are a minority in the industry.

Zizzo estimates only five to 10 percent of the construction market in Toronto is implementing low-carbon practices—the vast majority are still making decisions based on the lowest upfront cost over long-term value and impact. “The country was burning from coast to coast last year,” Zizzo says. Temperatures in Toronto are rising, with heat waves projected to grow in number and intensity with every passing year, alongside other extreme weather. “We’re in a climate emergency.”

Mantle CEO Ryan Zizzo stands at the site of a new project, the Cooper Koo YMCA green roof. YMCAs in the GTA have reduced their carbon emissions by 52 percent since 2008.

Three years into an accelerated net-zero strategy, the city has gradually ramped up its goals for low-carbon construction and retrofits. The next target is just over the horizon: a 45 percent reduction in city-wide emissions from 1990 levels by next year, which would be a four percent improvement from when the strategy was adopted.

To make good on their goals, the city’s Environment and Climate division is developing a bylaw that would set “reasonable and achievable performance standards” for all buildings to reduce their pollution levels, according to a recent municipal accountability report. If successfully instituted, the bylaw could first take effect in July 2026, starting with large, institutional and high-rise buildings and gradually trickling down to low-rise residential buildings by 2030.

New developments in Toronto already follow the Toronto Green Standard (TGS), a set of tiered environmental guidelines—the base tier of which is mandatory, and higher tiers optional for private developers—designed to incentivize builders to curb emissions by offering rebates when a project achieves specific environmental goals.

But in the last 14 years, less than 100 private developments have met the higher tiers of the Green Standard, according to data provided to The Local by the city. Currently, these buildings make up a meagre portion of Toronto’s ever-booming construction output, which is estimated to include 500 condo towers before 2030.

However, net-zero might soon be the expectation rather than the exception. With every update, the TGS advances requirements to encourage higher environmental performance. If all goes according to plan, and council ratifies the change, the standard of near-zero emissions will move down to a single mandatory tier by 2028, according to Jane Welsh, acting manager for city planning.

Potentially blocking the path to progress, however, are frustrated builders. They argue that more regulations would slow down construction, translating to fewer homes and ultimately, reduced affordability for homeowners. The Residential Construction Council of Ontario is considering a legal challenge to TGS requirements for new buildings, according to organization president Richard Lyall. He claims the TGS undermines provincial and national building codes and lacks legal authority.

But in the face of an existential climate threat, Zizzo says the time for decisive action is now. “The real vision of what we want to accomplish,” he says of his consultancy, “is to transform [buildings] from being one of the biggest sources of climate pollution to being one of the solutions.”

He points to the potential of bio-based materials like mass timber, a natural and renewable building material made of wood engineered to be strong enough to replace concrete and steel. “We’re actually taking emissions out of the atmosphere when we build with these types of materials,” Zizzo says. If harvested from sustainably managed forests, widespread use of the material could help to sequester carbon within buildings.

“We have to radically change our built environment,” he says. “And if we don’t, that’s not compatible with the future.”

Condo towers and new builds as seen from Bloor Street East. In the last fourteen years, fewer than 100 private developments have opted into the higher tiers of the city’s green building standard.

New builds are only one part of the puzzle. By the city’s calculations, an estimated 476,000 existing homes and buildings need to be retrofitted to be more energy efficient by 2040—that’s 27,000 home and 400 multi-unit residential building retrofits each year, in addition to a couple thousand commercial, industrial, and institutional buildings. For some buildings, a retrofit means installing new equipment, like switching from natural gas to an electric heat pump. For others, deeper changes to the insulation, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system or building exterior are required.

“Technically it’s possible,” says Shoshanna Saxe, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto and a Canada Research Chair in sustainable infrastructure, of the ambitious retrofit goals. “But it will require money and effort and investments and gumption. That’s yet to be seen, if we have it.”

Last year, energy company Enbridge Gas supported a total of 13,530 commercial, industrial, and residential building retrofits in Toronto—an ostensible success, but just a fraction of what is needed each year to meet the city’s goals. “We’re not anywhere near the trajectory we need to be on,” says Saxe.

“Things are moving very quickly on the technological front of decarbonization,” says How-Sen Chong, lead climate campaigner with the Toronto Environmental Alliance, citing the accelerating adoption of electric heat pumps as an example of a technological change pushing us closer to our climate targets.

Despite these incremental improvements, however, Canadian households aren’t on track to electrify their heating by 2100, let alone 2040, according to a 2023 report from the Building Decarbonization Alliance. “It’s just very challenging to do,” Chong says of the daunting road ahead. “To a certain extent, we’re building the bridge while we’re walking across it.”

The city is well aware that this is a problem beyond their capacity to handle alone. Retrofitting existing buildings in Toronto is estimated to require a $145 billion investment over the next 25 years. “We lack the available resources to fully fund the level of activity required to meet our retrofitting goals,” reads a municipal report from September 2023. The price tag would have to be shared among all levels of government, alongside businesses and homeowners.

This year, the city dedicated a capital investment of $1.5 billion and an operational budget of $63.4 million to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as a whole, far below the $4 billion to $9 billion in annual investments the city estimates are needed until 2040 for retrofits alone.

“We would like to see more activity and work with the private sector and commercial banks,” says James Nowlan, executive director of Environment and Climate at the City of Toronto. He admits that no such programs exist at the moment. “But we continue to engage and look at what might be.”

When it comes to provincial support, Nowlan says, conversations have been more focused on working toward a low-emissions electricity grid and expanding transit options. The province itself seems most preoccupied with Premier Doug Ford’s promise of 1.5 million new homes by 2031.

Last year, The Narwhal obtained documents from a 2022 meeting between the province and federal government in which Ontario officials “expressed that their focus remains building homes” and that their preference was to revisit discussions about green building standards “at a later time.” The province initially sought feedback on how it “manages its natural heritage…while supporting growth and development,” but reducing development-related emissions isn’t central to its main housing goals.

While retrofits are essential to slashing emissions, they also come with steep upfront costs for property owners—anywhere from $6,000 to $100,000 and above. But homeowners do see returns on their investment, monetary or otherwise. A deep retrofit, including upgrades to the roof, adding windows for increased daylight, or replacing a gas-burning HVAC system with a heat pump, can save up to 60 percent of energy costs. Retrofits that tackle insulation, ventilation, draft proofing, and humidity control can also improve air quality and reduce the risk of mould.

Grants and low- or no-interest loans are available to interested homeowners through both federal and municipal sources. But compared to the size of the city and the scale of its new developments, the uptake is minimal. In the decade since it was launched, Toronto’s Home Energy Loan Program has received under 3,000 applications from eligible homeowners, with just 155 offers granted in 2023. The High-Rise Retrofit Improvement Support Program, which targets residential apartment buildings built before 1990, has supported only 15 projects since 2013. It received four applications last year.

Despite the many residential highrises that could benefit from retrofits to become more climate resilient and energy efficient, property owners have shown a reluctance to take advantage of the city’s financing programs.

“Retrofits are difficult—they’re disruptive, expensive, and complicated,” says Marianne Touchie, an engineering professor at the University of Toronto. “There’s really no economic incentive for building owners to do this on their own.” To protect tenants, city-funded financial supports also restrict above-guideline rent increases connected with the retrofits, meaning landlords can’t use the improvements to justify higher rent prices.

Some building owners might be driven to retrofits because of high utility costs or unsatisfactory building performance, but Touchie says it’s unlikely to be a priority. In 2021, the city reported that retrofit-related costs have risen 37 percent since before the pandemic. “I don’t know if there’s enough money in those programs to get people from not considering a retrofit to considering one.”

But in the corner of the housing market that eschews any profit motives, climate and affordability goals work together, rather than against each other. “Some of the greenest housing that is built in Canada is built by non-market housing providers,” says Cherise Burda, executive director of City Building TMU at Toronto Metropolitan University. The reduction in energy bills works in favour of both residents and housing providers, and climate resiliency is often already built into non-profit mandates. Non-profit housing built on city land is also beholden to the city’s Green Standard; working with a municipality further eliminates costs, and revenue from such projects could be reinvested into more green housing.

“There’s a whole list of stacked savings that can come together to make non-market housing viable and sustainable,” Burda says.

In the Pocket—a Riverdale neighbourhood with tree-lined dead-end streets, shielded from traffic on one end by a TTC rail yard—you might notice cheerful green lawn signs proudly proclaiming, “We have reduced our home’s carbon footprint,” followed by a QR code.

Since 2017, Pocket residents have been bringing their houses down to near-zero emissions. Paul Dowsett, a resident of the neighbourhood for 27 years, is one of the founding members of the Pocket Change Project, which acts as a resource hub for homeowners looking to retrofit their properties, complete with volunteer coordinators, an outreach team, and a technical advisory committee. Some members, like Dowsett, were youngsters in the 70s during the first-ever Earth Day. “There was a promise of peace, love, and grooviness and living in harmony with the planet,” he says. “It didn’t quite work out that way…but I think the yearning for that promise stayed with us all along.”

Others found their way in through curiosity. An eco-fun fair at the park, a mention at the community association’s annual general meeting, a heat pump party —“it’s trusted neighbours talking to trusting neighbours,” Dowsett says. As of this June, the initiative is working with around 40 neighbourhood participants looking to switch from natural gas to heat pumps, swap gas ranges for induction stoves, upgrade leaky insulation, and more.

The changes aren’t always simple or quick to implement. “It’s still a bit of a disjointed industry,” Dowsett says, explaining that participating homeowners must make it through a maze of contractors and municipal approvals before reaching the elusive net-zero. “One thing depends on another,” he says. “But I think people generally understand they’re dealing with something that’s complex, with a lot of moving parts.”

Architect Paul Dowsett has been improving his home in Toronto’s Pocket neighbourhood for the entire time he’s lived in it, finally completing his renovation and retrofit in December 2022.

As an architect, Dowsett has been folding his retrofit into ongoing home renovations ever since he moved in. It wasn’t until December 2022 that his transformation was complete, after electrifying his household appliances. That process alone cost him $15,000, though Dowsett says he would’ve had to replace the appliances regardless. Annually, he’s saving $400 on bills.

It’s not a process accessible to everyone—the first barrier is simply being a homeowner, let alone one who can afford the tens of thousands of dollars involved in a serious retrofit. Pocket Change helps facilitate some savings, with vendors offering discounts to members, particularly in the area of air-sealing and insulation work. Over time, the program has expanded and taken on a life of its own. “That’s what we wanted it to be.”

As interest spread to other parts of the city, with Dowsett and his team fielding more questions from outside their neighbourhood, Toronto Home Retrofits was born, a new non-profit focused on expanding the Pocket Change model. With support from Toronto Hydro and The Atmospheric Fund, the organization just hired a full-time executive director. Dowsett says there’s been widespread interest in the program from neighbourhoods, faith-based associations, climate activist groups, and companies alike.

Mantle Developments continues to expand its own clientele and impact as well. “Low-carbon materials used to just be something people talked about at conferences,” Zizzo says. Now, Mantle has helped update the Toronto Green Standard, and has helped clients like the YMCA of Greater Toronto transform their climate and decarbonization strategy, reducing emissions by over 52 percent since 2008, with more to come. Zizzo says the next generation of YMCAs are looking into more advanced climate strategies, like deconstruction over demolition, mass timber construction, and harnessing geothermal energy.

Despite financial hurdles and slow progress, there’s still hope that the value of emission reductions can be recognized independent of their economic potential. The federal government’s annual National Inventory Report tracking emissions from all economic sectors found greenhouse gas emissions from the building sector have increased since 2005, only offset by decreases in other categories, like electricity.

“We’re seeing evidence of stronger economic growth linked to less carbon-intensive activity,” says Zizzo. “[But] the building industry is very conservative.” Like most sustainability-related action, there is an urgency that’s not being met. But Zizzo is seeing firsthand that the industry is starting to take climate change seriously.

“Seeing the huge change that’s happened in the past 10 years as it relates to green buildings and low-carbon materials—it shows we can move quickly,” he says. “We need to move a lot quicker.”