Government and Sustainability: The Calgary Water Centre
All images sourced from the City of Calgary's website.
The Calgary Water Centre won the Emerald Award for Government Institutions in 2009 for being Alberta’s most sustainable building ever at the time it was built. It earned a coveted and unprecedented, LEED Gold rating. The three primary reasons this achievement is so worthy of our attention are 1) the sheer size of the Water Centre proving that “big” can be sustainable, 2) that it was a government building that won the Emerald Award and 3) it’s tremendous architectural beauty, changing perceptions on what environmental design can look like.
The Water Centre is a massive and stunning building, one that receives 95 percent of its lighting from the sun itself. It operates with a 72 percent reduction in wastewater usage, a 59 percent reduction in water usage, and 58 percent savings in annual energy consumption all achieved through sustainable design (and compared to a building without its sustainability features). Not only that but it was estimated that the efficiency gains yielded from the building would offset its construction costs of $43 million in a mere 15 years.
Building Big, Building Sustainable
At an astounding 183,000 square feet, the Water Centre is six times the size of the Mosaic Centre, another Emerald Award-winning building that beat out the Water Centre as Alberta’s most sustainable building with a LEED Platinum rating. The immense size of the Water Centre is worth meditating on. Oftentimes sustainable construction is thought of in terms of homes and other small buildings, very rarely do we let ourselves think as ambitiously as 183,000 square feet but thankfully the Water Centre did.
The Water Centre houses around 775 staff from the City of Calgary’s Water Services Department, all with dedicated workspaces in addition to common areas. The reduction in the indirect carbon footprints of these employees is immense. Sustainable living is often framed as something that we do at home, on the road, or when we go shopping, however, it also factors into our professional lives. While the efficiency of the building you may work in is largely out of your control, hence why we don’t focus heavily on it, it does make an impact. Work comprises roughly 33% of the average person’s waking day and typically those are energy intensive hours. If employees were to push for more efficient workspaces, even through small changes like smart thermostats, we could start to realize plenty of marginal efficiency gains. Indeed, some of the best solutions to the climate crisis aren’t about radically changing the way we do things but instead are about making the way we do things far more efficient. What’s more, efficiency saves money, and no matter what type of work someone does, saving money is a good thing.
Sustainability and Government
The Calgary Water Centre is proof positive that sustainability is good governance and that government can walk the talk when it comes to promoting sustainability. Public works often have a perception of being inefficient, over budget, and fraught with overly-zealous bureaucracy. While this is based on anecdotes, for the most part, it sends a message to citizens that government doesn’t have leadership credibility. The government sets policy and can certainly be innovative in that capacity but when it comes to being innovative as an organization it is seen as a follower, not a leader.
A Government Institution like the Water Centre challenges that notion. When it comes to signalling the priorities of society, government plays an enormous role, and in this way is uniquely situated to be an environmental leader. If a home builder decides on building a more efficient home that sends a sign to markets that sustainability is in demand, that’s good. If a government starts to build LEED gold or platinum buildings and retrofits its existing assets for efficiency, that echoes across society.
Environmentalism and Mass Market Appeal
The Water Centre isn’t just a remarkably sustainable building but a truly iconic one with commanding beauty. Avenue Calgary named it as one of the 20 buildings that have shaped the city of Calgary. While the nuts and bolts of the building, namely its excellent environmental design and superb layout, are the heart of what makes it such an achievement, it’s critical that we don’t discount the importance of architectural prowess. The Water Centre, like the Mosaic Centre after it, makes sustainability sexy, and that is a win for everyone. When sustainable building is not only good for the environment, the pocketbook, and has visual appeal, it creates mass market demand
Electric Vehicles (EV’s) were long a frankly mediocre option, even as their mileage improved, driven by only the most die-hard of environmentalists. Then, along came Tesla and the game was changed. Tesla proved that EV’s can be luxurious and visually stunning and the EV market has never been the same. Of course, Tesla also emphasized functionality, and Tesla’s cars are known as some of the top in the world.
Now other car firms have launched their best competition with cars like the Nissan Leaf, Ford Focus Electric, and others. The same logic can be applied when it comes to sustainability in buildings. Buildings like The Water Centre do the very same for environmentally sound design. By showing that sustainability doesn’t have to mean a building is covered in panels and strange objects (though we at The Green Medium sure find that beautiful too) it makes it all the more attractive to renters, buyers, and future builders.
.The Calgary Water Centre is impressive. It’s size, efficiency, and beauty make it a fine feather in Calgary’s cap and something that the rest of Alberta, Canada, and beyond would do well to take note of. Technically, the Water Centre is feat of sustainability, but it is also so much more than that. It is a model for how sustainability can be made appealing to a mass market. It is an inspiration for other governments to take note of their ability to lead through symbolism and innovation. Finally, it is a victory for large-scale sustainability projects. Who knew there was so much to learn from a building in the middle of Calgary.