It all starts with the envelope—a building’s envelope, that is, to create more sustainable, comfortable homes and offices. Then the power of innovative materials and software comes together to create Net Zero buildings.
In Part 2 of a special two-part series of Disruptors, an RBC Podcast, focused on greening Canada’s build sector, host John Stackhouse chats with three experts dedicated to building Canada’s next generation of sustainable buildings: Brad Carr, CEO of Mattamy Homes; Carol Philips, Design Leader and Partner, Moriyama Teshima Architects; and Sam Ramadori, CEO of BrainBox AI.
Find out how buildings made of wood are paving the way for less carbon-intensive concrete, and how the power of AI is helping buildings run smarter and greener.
To read RBC Climate Action Institute’s latest report, “High Rise, Low Carbon: Canada’s $40 billion Net Zero Building Challenge”, click here.
To sign up for “Climate Signals”, a new weekly newsletter from the RBC Climate Action Institute on the world’s path to Net Zero, click here to subscribe.
To learn more about Mattamy Homes, check out their website here.
To learn more about BrainBox AI, click here.
Speaker 1 [00:00:01] Hi, it’s John here. You know, one of the great things about Canada I’ve always thought is the lineup of people around the world to get into this country. It’s a tribute to every Canadian and the society that we continue to build. It can also be a challenge, especially when it comes to housing. Canada has an affordability crisis and we’re going to need a lot more housing units to accommodate not only the population that we have, but the population we aspire and need to grow in the coming decades. That’s a housing challenge. It’s also a climate challenge because the houses that we all enjoy and call home are also contributing negatively to climate change over the coming decade. We’re going to need up to 6 million new housing units to accommodate the expected growth of our population and to make housing more affordable. How can we add all those units and also cut the emissions from our buildings? As you heard on our last episode, buildings are Canada’s third biggest source of greenhouse gases. That’s because of the unsustainable construction materials that go into every building and also the way we heat and cool our homes and offices, shopping centers and warehouses. Technology can make a big difference, and it can be materials technology, as well as the software that increasingly drives our homes. But it’s also going to take a bit of change from each of us when it comes to our relationships with the built environment. Can technology make our homes and offices smarter for a new climate change? This is Disruptors and RBC podcast. I’m John Stackhouse. Welcome to the second of a two part series on Greening Canada’s built sector. We’re exploring new builds and whether the combined power of new technologies, techniques and innovative materials can get us closer to net zero. Building better homes can be better for everyone, as we’re about to hear from our next guest. Brad Carr leads one of the largest privately owned building firms in North America, and it’s the largest new homebuilder in Canada. From its origins in 1978, Mattamy Homes has gone on to build more than 60,000 homes and in some ways is just getting going. It’s a real pleasure to welcome Brad to Disruptors. Brad, welcome to the podcast.
Speaker 2 [00:02:37] Thanks for having me, John It’s a pleasure to be here.
Speaker 1 [00:02:39] Let’s start with a basic question about houses, because a lot of people probably don’t think of their homes as sources of greenhouse gas emissions and therefore a challenge to the climate. What’s wrong with our houses as they’re built now?
Speaker 2 [00:02:52] I’ll try and break it down into two components. There is obviously a lot of energy, a lot of carbon that is used to construct homes and to construct all the materials that go into homes. So that’s kind of one component, the actual physical building of the house. The second part is how we operate our homes. We all live in built structures and we all consume energy to heat cool and operate our homes. And so that we referred to is kind of the operational component of the greenhouse gases produced by housing.
Speaker 1 [00:03:27] And what can you as a home builder do because you presumably just have to buy the cement and wood and glass that’s on the market. And then once you sell the home, people can turn up or turn down the heat as much as they choose. You have no real control over that.
Speaker 2 [00:03:41] I think what’s important is we all recognize that we have a role to play. And our founder, Peter Gilligan, once said it very succinctly As the largest home builder in Canada, we not only have the opportunity, but we have the obligation to lead our industry in the direction that it needs to go. I think we can be a real catalyst for changing some of those materials by encouraging our trades and suppliers to do things differently. And at the same time, I think we can create built environments that our home buyers can operate more efficiently. So we’re kind of right in the middle and we can hopefully have an impact on both.
Speaker 1 [00:04:21] Give us a sense of how houses are changing. What’s different today from, let’s say, 25 years ago in terms of the climate impact?
Speaker 2 [00:04:30] I think one of the easiest things for everybody to get their arms around is how well-built the homes are and the fact that as we build better building envelopes, the more efficient it is in terms of its consumption of energy. Ultimately, what we don’t want is a whole bunch of leaky houses where we’re just paying money and consuming energy to heat the outdoors or cool the outdoors.
Speaker 1 [00:04:55] So it seems like an interesting challenge between kind of old fashioned materials, the way we seal a window, for instance, and then high tech, the way we operate our homes. Where do you think the greatest opportunities are? The ingredients of the building or more in the technologies that help us operate our homes better?
Speaker 2 [00:05:14] It’s always the safest answer, but I think it’s a bit of both. I think materials science can make a massive difference moving forward. If we think about some of the elements in our homes that we all value so much. An example would be Windows. Obviously, the tightest home we could build would be a box with no windows, but that wouldn’t be very enjoyable to live in. And so materials science around window efficiency and window insulation, the type of sealants we use around the windows, all of those things can have a major impact. But the other part of it that can have an impact is just how we put these materials together. Just really efficient building practices that encourage disciplined installation methodologies can also have an impact on how well that building envelope performs.
Speaker 1 [00:06:00] I’m guessing that costs more, and that cost ultimately has to be borne by the homeowner. So how are you thinking through and how are home buyers thinking through the economics of this?
Speaker 2 [00:06:10] I think we would all agree that in Canada today, one of the number one topics is housing affordability. The truth is we can’t talk just about affordability without talking about sustainability. We need to make sure that the homes we’re building today are going to be those more efficient, sustainable homes for tomorrow. So how do we get there and how do we achieve both? I think we do it with scale. I think we try and bring along everybody with us. And by bringing more materials to the market that more builders are using more frequently, hopefully we ultimately drive down those costs and we can tackle affordability and sustainability at the same time.
Speaker 1 [00:06:48] As you say, though, it’s a challenging market for a lot of people right now. You can’t turn on a news channel without seeing descriptions of the housing crisis. Is this something that people want to take on but maybe not? This year or next year that they want to defer this, perhaps?
Speaker 2 [00:07:02] I think it’s a safe assumption that many feel that this is one that we can defer. I think we’re already behind the curve. Any time you’re tackling something so significant as climate change, it always feels like, well, we can delay it, we can delay it. But the truth is, if we don’t get in front of this today, it’s going to creep up on us in 2050 will be here before we know it, and we will have an opportunity to recover.
Speaker 1 [00:07:27] I’m always curious when I see a real estate sign for a net zero community or a net zero house and wonder what does that mean if someone’s labeling their home as net zero?
Speaker 2 [00:07:38] So essentially what it means is the house has been designed such that the energy that it requires can be produced by sustainable forms of energy attached to the house. So whether that be solar or geothermal or any type of renewable energy source and the energy that’s created and the energy that’s consumed are equal and thus net zero.
Speaker 1 [00:08:05] So with that in mind, as a homeowner, am I actually going to save money in the long term if I have a net zero already home?
Speaker 2 [00:08:12] That’s an important thing to consider because while we all agreed today, the capital cost of building a net zero home is slightly higher, the operating cost is lower. And so the hope is that we can create a balance in terms of how much it costs upfront, offset by how much you save on a monthly basis moving forward.
Speaker 1 [00:08:36] Rob, before we let you go, I want to ask you about the insights that you’ve gained in building sustainable communities. Not a me in some ways is in the vanguard of Net zero community. Specifically, what have you learned today?
Speaker 2 [00:08:47] I think one of the things that is permeating through every corner of Mat, Amy Holmes, is an understanding that this is important, an understanding that like customer experience, like quality, like profitability, this is going to be a key driver of our future success by making sustainability a pillar of everything we do, I truly believe, will help not only advance sustainability at Miami, but advance sustainability right across the homebuilding building sector.
Speaker 1 [00:09:19] That’s a great message. Brad, thanks for being on disruptors.
Speaker 2 [00:09:22] Thanks for having me.
Speaker 1 [00:09:23] That was Brad Carr, CEO of Miami Homes. As we’ve heard, buildings can often be the sum of their parts, the materials that go into their construction, be it cement or glass or steel. Those have significant impacts on their carbon footprint. And as our next guest will tell us, reducing the amount of materials, particularly materials like concrete, can be key to creating eco friendly buildings. Carol Phillips is design lead and partner at Moriyama Teshima Architects. That’s the firm behind such notable buildings as the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the Ontario Science Centre and Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, and the stunning Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. Carol, welcome to Disruptors.
Speaker 3 [00:10:09] Thank you, John.
Speaker 1 [00:10:10] Let me ask you to help us understand a bit more what raw materials play when it comes to construction and new builds.
Speaker 3 [00:10:17] Well, buildings represent about 40% of the greenhouse gas emissions on the planet. And this breaks down into two categories their operational carbon and their embodied carbon. And materials are effectively embodied carbon. And so I think it’s up to us as architects, designers, builders and clients to really look hard at that proportions and try to increasingly reduce the operational carbon in a building. The carbon that is expended when we run the lights or the air conditioning or the heating. That’s going to become increasingly decarbonized and more efficient as we clean up our grids. So then it matters even more to select the right materials for our projects, because that embodied carbon starts to matter even more as we begin to clean up the energy sources. Carol, I’d love to.
Speaker 1 [00:11:10] Know how as an architect, you think through this challenge. I grew up admiring the work of Raymond Moriyama, the founder of your firm, and the dreamer of many of the most iconic buildings in our cities, especially here in Toronto. As an architect, when did you start to think about the climate impact of the materials that go into your buildings?
Speaker 3 [00:11:33] Well, I think part of the philosophies of the firm and all of us here together is, is that we choose materials and we design buildings that actually represent the sites and the places that the buildings are cited in. And increasingly, we cannot ignore the fact that we’re having negative impact on the environment. And so we begin to search for materials that represent and come from places. And we’ve always been attracted to the natural sources of materials. And for that reason, I think timber is a fantastic material because if you even look across Canada, the forests are not the same. The forests of Quebec and the forests of B.C., they’re different and so imbued in the material there is a personality that is regionally specific. And I think for me as a designer, it satisfies both the ethos to represent a place and to look for carbon sequestering highly sustainable renewable materials.
Speaker 1 [00:12:30] Well, let’s get into this issue and opportunity of timber, because you’re currently the partner in charge of a remarkable project currently being constructed in Toronto’s East Bayfront community to George Brown College, and this is known as limber loss place. Can you give us a sense of what the building aspires to be?
Speaker 3 [00:12:50] Close really is a remarkable building. So Lumber Lost Place is going to be the first tall, exposed mass timber net zero carbon emissions teaching facility in Canada, in North America. And I think it’s on track to be that in the world. It is a building that’s actually going to use no fuel fired equipment to power it. It’s going to use renewable materials for the structure. And this is a building that will has 3400 students. So what better place to teach a new generation about how we’re going to change expectations and change a culture of what we expect from our public buildings? And we really have George Brown College to thank for setting that vision and setting that bar really high. It’s also going to be a striking building. It was procured through an international design competition, so they were not only looking for a high performance building, they were looking for beauty. And I think that that’s actually part of the solution as well, to make really valuable, enduring, remarkable places that also achieve all of those high criteria for treating the planet better.
Speaker 1 [00:13:58] Why does beauty matter so much? We’ve got an efficiency challenge here as well of just making buildings more climate efficient. What’s the role of beauty in that?
Speaker 3 [00:14:07] Well, I think it’s the assignment of value. And by value, I don’t mean it has to cost more. I mean, it actually has to mean something to you. It has to inspire you. And I think that there is something to be said for making remarkable places that actually elevate your experience, connect you with your environment, and actually make you feel better and feel more connected. Not only. Your community but to the planet. And I think it adds a level of care and responsibility to everybody who encounters a space and an environment. If you see a care that went into creating that place to house yourself or your peers.
Speaker 1 [00:14:43] It’s such a great point. I often think of Tesla in that there’s a climate centric innovation that is also very esthetically appealing to a lot of people. And in fact that sometimes is the main motivation for people to adopt it. As we think about changing our lifestyles or our preferences in a more climate smart way, we have to think of the esthetic side of it that adds value, as you said, to our lives. I wonder, Carol, if you can tell us a bit more about timber. What’s so special and unique about mass timber compared to traditional concrete and steel?
Speaker 3 [00:15:14] Timber is an incredibly remarkable material. It’s grown with strength and remarkably Tall Tree demonstrates on its own it’s structural integrity. But what we’re talking about when we talk about mass timber is not cutting down the old growth. It’s about using smaller members, even weaker members, and laminating them together into massive pieces that we can use structurally to actually replace, in many cases, concrete and steel. Concrete is an incredibly durable material, and it makes the most sense in very, very specific applications. However, we can’t ignore the fact that both concrete and steel have very, very carbon intensive processes that actually allow them to become the remarkable materials that they use. But we have, again, a responsibility to use carbon sequestering renewable materials as much as we possibly can as we race towards 20, 30 and 2050. And timber is really unique in that way, in that we can use it for structural means for building in urban centers, for instance. But at the same time, understand that we’re also making space in the forest to replant and regrow those very same trees.
Speaker 1 [00:16:26] Can you give us a sense of all that goes into the production of mass timber? Where do these very large pieces of wood come from and how are they processed?
Speaker 3 [00:16:36] That’s a really interesting question because I think when we think about using timber in buildings, we are saying cuts your standard two by four or a two by six, or we think about very large members that come from a whole tree and Mastaba is neither one of those. It’s laminating together two by sixes and two by fours into much larger members so that they act like an entire tree. In fact, a tree like you’ve never seen before, the largest that you can actually assemble. And in that way, we’re not using old straws. We’re using smaller members and laminating them together with glue under pressure in order to create this stable, fire resistant, massive member that has at the structural integrity of a much larger piece of wood and basically using the actual capacity of the fiber in different ways. We can laminate wood together to have different kinds of performances that are incredibly stable, incredibly true and straight. And also, again, I’m just going to say it renewable.
Speaker 1 [00:17:44] Carol, before we let you go, when lumber losses complete and people get to admire it, what do you hope they think?
Speaker 3 [00:17:51] You know, one of the interesting things that happens when we tour people around the construction site or people walk by, they look at the building and they immediately recognize the natural material. And they say, where did that would come from? And as an architect or a designer or a builder, we have that responsibility immediately to answer where does it come from? How many trees were replaced? Where is the forest? How was the forest impacted? And ultimately, I would love for someone to say and ask that of every material they see in the building. I’d like them to ask that of the glass that they see and the metals that they see there. I think the raising of consciousness beyond the beauty, beyond the idea that this is a remarkable space that actually feels like a tree house at the edge of the lake. I also welcome the question, where did that would come from and how is the forest being treated? Because we need to extend that same thinking to every single choice we make if we’re going to live a more sustainable future together with the planet.
Speaker 1 [00:18:53] That’s an outstanding question for every climate conversation. Where does that come from? Carol, thanks so much for being on disruptors.
Speaker 3 [00:19:00] Thank you.
Speaker 1 [00:19:03] That was Carol Phillips of Moriyama Teshima Architects. Our last guest today is a Canadian tech entrepreneur who’s on a mission to make buildings smarter from the inside out by leveraging the incredible power of AI in conjunction with the building’s heating, cooling and ventilation systems. Sam Rama Dorie is the CEO of Montreal based Brain Box A.I., a company named by Time magazine, as one of the best inventions of 2020. Sam, welcome to Disruptors.
Speaker 3 [00:19:39] Thanks for having me, John. Pleasure to be here.
Speaker 1 [00:19:42] Let’s start with Brain Box I. Give us a quick sense of what it does.
Speaker 3 [00:19:47] Sure, John. What brain box set out to do is really leverage new capabilities that Air is now giving us. And obviously it’s a timely discussion given the last few months around Jupiter. But what we sought to do was basically take data from buildings and specifically the heating and cooling systems of buildings. That is by far the biggest energy consumer and emitter of GHG. And the whole goal was to leverage data that buildings are generating today, but to really under using and marry that data with external data impacting the building and letting the new capabilities of air loose on that data. Ultimately with the goal of optimizing the building’s energy consumption, reducing emissions, making the space more comfortable using autonomous artificial intelligence.
Speaker 1 [00:20:31] That’s a really good connection to what we’ve been talking about earlier in the episode, and that’s about the incredible power of materials in determining how much GHG emissions go into a building but also come out of the building. But there can be a technology gap. Are we at a stage now where technology is sufficient for buildings to manage themselves?
Speaker 3 [00:20:52] We are at a stage. I mean, our inventor, Jose Mohan, was inspired when he got to sit in a self-driving car six, seven years back in California. And the idea of a technology that can learn the environment that’s in that’s constantly changing and then be able to make decisions on the fly. In the case of a self-driving car, obviously getting from point A to point B safely could be applied to buildings because they’re constantly being impacted by other factors. And so using this capability of the self-learning artificial intelligence that then can autonomously control the many hundreds of individual pieces of equipment in a building in real time is now at our fingertips. And that’s what we sought to leverage to really make a real impact on the energy consumption of buildings, but also in a way that’s very scalable.
Speaker 1 [00:21:40] Can you give us a sense of the role of AI here? I work in an office where the lights go on and off by themselves. The heat seems to go up and down by itself. How is AI changing the dynamics of temperature and lighting regulation?
Speaker 3 [00:21:54] You have systems today that are purely responding to what the sensors are telling it, and those sensors are simply the thermostats on your wall, maybe a humidity sensor somewhere. It’s making decisions based on what that sensor is saying. But at the same time, it has no idea that it’s sunny and 30 degrees outside. But soon it’s going to be cloudy and rainy. And my energy right now costs so much and it may cost more in the afternoon. And it’s this carbon intensive now, less carbon stuff like it. It knows nothing of those external factors impacting costs and energy consumption. And so here we seek to turn that dynamic around. So let’s bring all the buildings data to the cloud, this Marriott with all this external data so that it can learn and make smarter decisions.
Speaker 1 [00:22:41] Brain Box AI’s been at this for a few years or more now, but as you mentioned earlier, we’re kind of into a new chapter of AI in 2023 with generative AI with GPT. How is that changing your thinking about the role of AI and what brain box can do in the building space?
Speaker 3 [00:23:00] Well, I mean, we’re lucky in Canada, particularly in cities like Montreal and Toronto, where there’s such an incredible knowhow around the AI and really pushing the envelope that as company like brain boxing, AI, we can interact with that ecosystem. And so that’s benefit number one. But two, I think we’re all seeing the push on the regulatory front around AI and having been involved in developing and our platform, we are supportive about the efforts to put some framework around the use of AI and definitely recognize that this is moving much more rapidly than I think most people thought. And there are things we need to keep in mind as we’re pushing this technology in many fields.
Speaker 1 [00:23:40] How fast do you think that’s going to accelerate the technology?
Speaker 3 [00:23:44] And if you speak to the experts, there’s a fairly consistent message that the acceleration is faster than they would have originally thought a couple of years ago or a few years back. And then we’ve heard this quote. Exactly. If you look at the last five years of change, look forward, five years is not just going to go faster. So there’s no doubt that this is moving at a rapid pace. Regulation, I think it’s being considered Europe here in Canada, U.S. feels like it will be coming. I think it needs to be done right. I think in our case, a brain box. We’re proud that we’re using it for a very important global goal of decarbonizing buildings. It’s one of the big top five global climate problems we have. So you don’t want to discourage us and many other innovators to come with scalable solutions. That’s what I really have to offer is its scalability. But at the same time, we’ve got to think about how we could put a framework around it for many other industries, our own, but many other industries as well.
Speaker 1 [00:24:36] You’ve talked about the technology. Let’s turn for a moment to the users, to building owners specifically. Your technology is now being used in 25 or more countries. I’m curious how you’re engaging and encouraging building owners to invest in and take advantage of the kinds of innovations we’re seeing coming out of the Brain Box API.
Speaker 3 [00:24:56] The real estate sector is probably not the fastest adopter of new technologies, right? So you do have to understand and get better at how we interact with the day to day operators, managers of buildings. And that’s something we have breytenbachs and also have to continue improving on. When you’re doing groundbreaking tech, you really have to focus on the technology, make it work. But given the number of years we’re at it now, certainly at the phase where we have to think more and more about how we interact with the users of the technology, in our case, building operators, there’s a lot to manage. You’ve got the constant phone call from the tenants dealing with the day to day crises. Now you’re getting the additional pressures from senior management and the board that are putting forth sustainability targets and goals that are very real and very challenging to achieve. So you’re entering a fray and creating a relationship that involves working together to make it a success. So I think many of the technology companies ourselves and many that we interact with recognize that we have to keep getting better and better.
Speaker 1 [00:26:01] Your primary market is large buildings, office buildings. How far are we away from this being widely applied in the home sector?
Speaker 3 [00:26:10] I’d say for the moment, our biggest deployments are in commercial buildings and retail buildings. The issue with the homes is truly every one is unique, although I think there is a drive to make the homes much more efficient right off the bat with common systems and common protocols. Unfortunately, right now, 99% of the building stock is already out there and you have to deal with that 99%. And so it is a challenge. I think people are tackling it in different ways. But for us, we are really focused on the commercial side of things. The scalability going on the commercial side versus any other movement to residential is probably a number of years out for us.
Speaker 1 [00:26:51] Before we let you go, Sam. What can all of us as building users, occupants, tenants and even owners do differently to accelerate this kind of progress?
Speaker 3 [00:27:01] The tenants and landlord relationship, it’s been around forever and a day, right? We go back a couple of thousand years and it will look something like it does today in a sense. Given the change and how fast we need to make it happen, I think the tenants really have to get much more involved or be made to be involved because in the end, true innovation, it’s not an easy flip the switch, right? There’s change involved. People need to be kept up to speed. There are implementation times where things may be reacting differently. We don’t want to discourage that big move towards innovation and the normal hiccups of true innovation happen, but the tenants need to be informed, whereas for them it’s a regular Wednesday afternoon and something went off and they do what they have to do, which is they have an office that needs work and they’re going to call downstairs and say, What’s going on? Well, I think if there’s a relationship and a shared common goal, I think everybody in that building wants it to decarbonize, which just have to be a little bit differently than we have in the past.
Speaker 1 [00:27:58] That’s a great note to end on that technology is ultimately about people and buildings are ultimately about people. Sam, thanks for being on disruptors.
Speaker 3 [00:28:08] Thank you very much, John, for having us.
Speaker 1 [00:28:12] That was Sam Rama Dory, CEO of Brain Box A.I.. Thanks to my other guests, Brad Carr of Miami Holmes and Carol Phillips of Moriyama Teshima Architects. Canada is a nation of builders, and I guess we have to be given the environment that we inhabit. And there’s a lot of people out there who think we can’t really change the way we build homes and offices, shopping malls and industrial parks. It kind of works the way it is and too big to change. There’s others who say most of the buildings that we’ll have in 20 or 30 years are already out there. So we can’t really change them unless we go about some massive renovation project which could be cost prohibitive. But as we’ve heard over the last two episodes, there’s already remarkable change and innovation and yes, disruption underway across the built environment, whether it’s new subdivisions or old buildings being renovated or the way we’re using technology to operate the buildings of our lives, Canadian developers and technologists and innovators are showing the world how we can transform our communities to make them part of our net zero future. Join us next time for a special episode. In recognition of Indigenous History Month, we’ll go behind the Oneida Energy Storage Project in southwestern Ontario and explore its significance as the largest of its kind in Canada. Until then, I’m John Stackhouse and this is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Talk to you soon.
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