Dockside's Van Belleghem Wants Victoria to be Green Showcase

Monday, December 4, 2006

When Joe Van Belleghem first got into green building with the transformation of Glendale Hospital into the Vancouver Island Technology Park (VITP), he admits his "motives were not holistic. I just wanted to distinguish the product in the marketplace, to get some free press and publicity."

But Van Belleghem found that creating environmentally benign structures made economic sense for the owner and the community-and at a personal level restored his interest in being a developer.

Now, with a maturing vision of socially, environmentally and economically beneficial building design, Van Belleghem is the push behind the largest redevelopment in Victoria's history: Dockside Green, which at buildout will comprise 26 residential, retail, office and light industrial structures housing 2,500 people and totaling more than 1 million square feet on a 15-acre site which was a contaminated blight on the edge of the Inner Harbour for decades.

But when Van Belleghem was hired by the B.C. government to come up with a proposal for the Glendale Hospital buildings, he was disenchanted with the whole business of development.

"I actually quit the business," he told the Business Examiner. "The prime reason was I wasn't having any fun. I felt the type of projects I would do wasn't creating any value for the communities. It wasn't creating any value in my life. I was making money. But I wasn't inspired in what I did."

After he decided to tackle the Glendale-VITP project greenly, a friend advised him to read Natural Capitalism. It revolutionized his thinking, he reports, by directing business people to "look to the environment for solutions" in direct contrast to the conventional approach he had been taught in university, "that the environment was a cost. The idea was to do the minimum necessary to avoid prosecution."

The first outcome was the decision not to tear down the Glendale: "We didn't want to lose all that embodied energy and the economic benefit of reusing it." By installing waterless urinals and other measures, the new technology park reduced water use by six million litres a year, enough, he says, to render unnecessary a sewer expansion by the local government at a $1.5-million cost. Recycling the construction waste saved $600,000. While checking out the Hartland dump, Van Belleghem and an associate from BC Building Corporation, Jack Meredith, observed workers flaring off methane. They successfully pushed for a methane-power plant to be built on site, which generates electricity and, for the city, royalties.

"But just think of the payoffs if reuse of this resource had been built into the design of the Hartland landfill from the start," says Van Belleghem. "If there were greenhouses nearby, for example, we could also have captured the heat generated by burning the methane and heated those houses."

As well, rainwater that falls on the VITP site goes into the local ecosystems rather than into the sewer system, after being filtered through ponds thick with water plants. The project changed Van Belleghem's whole approach to development.

Van Belleghem later joined forces with Windmill Development, an Ontario-based partnership that shared his new vision. His work on VITP so impressed the U.S. Green Building Council he became the first developer to sit on its board. He has since helped start the Canada Green Building Council.

VITP also won gold level certification under the Green Council's Leadership` in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program, a standard, he is pledged to exceed with Dockside Green.

Pledged, in fact, to the tune of $1 million.

That's the penalty he offered and contracted to pay to the City of Victoria if the new project falls short of LEED's platinum standard. "We didn't want to just say we are trying for this standard. Anybody can say that. We wanted to stand behind the commitment. And we'll be independently audited."

Van Belleghem had a couple more green projects under his belt by the time the City of Victoria decided that it wanted the old industrial site behind the Point Hope shipyard redeveloped in a single package according to triple bottom line accounting; showing, in other words, social, environmental and economic benefits.

The size of the concept advanced by Victoria could have been a problem for Windmill: "We had never worked with other developers but the scale of this required it," he says. Happily, VanCity Enterprises, the offspring of Vancouver City Savings Credit Union, had the capital and the right values. "It was a match made in heaven," says Van Belleghem. "VanCity deserves huge acknowledgment for understanding that what we're trying to create with Dockside is a model to show around the globe."

VanCity was ready to commit to a long-term project (Dockside has a 10-year buildout) and a planning process involving considerable community involvement.

This last notion, Van Belleghem observes, is another case of a seemingly expensive approach which produces savings that are already evident in the strong support Dockside Green has attracted from the local community.

Van Belleghem's design team followed an integrated approach he calls "whole system costing."

"Building design isn't done in an integrated way today," he complains. "The engineer and the architect do their things in separate rooms and hardly talk." As a result, a building's mechanical systems-water, heating, cooling-are often "way more than needed."

For Dockside Green, this integrated approach will mean buildings that are 56 per cent more energy efficient than the National Research Council's Model Energy Code for Buildings. Windows of special glass will keep heat out in summer and keep it in during the cold months and will be situated away from the summer sun. Exterior blinds will also repel the summer sun, reducing cooling costs to nil.

However, lest global warming advance beyond these measures, all buildings are designed to accommodate air conditioning units down the line. The design of buildings for change is called "future proofing," says Van Belleghem.

Such features boost the initial cost, he admits, but bring long-term savings. "If utility rates rise five per cent, our residents will see their costs go up only two per cent." And down the line, when newer developments become gradually more energy efficient, Dockside Green units will remain competitive in terms of resale value.

Toilets are dual flush and all urinals will be waterless in order to bring down the project's water costs,which dovetails with the plan for Dockside Green to treat its own sewage. By bringing down water use, the sewage plant's size and cost were cut in half. "We are saving 70 million gallons a year," says Van Belleghem, who hopes to derive some sort of fiscal benefit from the city from taking this pressure off the public infrastructure.

The water from the treatment plant will sustain a network of streams and ponds running through the complex during the summer when building runoff dwindles. The stream not only obviate the need for a storm sewer system, they support plant life which enhances the landscape and viewscape.

This in turn makes working in the project's commercial developments more pleasant, and ties in with Windmill's vision of healthier buildings. Using of non-toxic building materials in the United States have been found to increase productivity from five to 15 per cent on offices, says Van Belleghem, and decrease convalescence time in hospitals.

While conventional buildings circulate air into individual rooms via hallways, Dockside Green will bring 100 per cent fresh air into each apartment or condominium.

Dockside Green will save money elsewhere by heating the complex centrally, using a biomass plant fueled with wood waste. Each apartment or condo unit will have a meter to monitor energy use, Van Belleghem hopes these will provide a means whereby residents can be offered savings by BC Hydro for foregoing appliance use during periods of peak demand.

Social benefits from the project include Van Belleghem's own activities as a roving ambassador of LEED standards and green building-and of the Victoria and Canadian manufacturers whose products he is incorporating into the project. Vancouver's Nexterra Energy Corp. is supplying the biomass plant, for example, while Victoria's Carmanah Technologies will provide lighting and Ontario's Zenon is making the sewage plant. Wooden boardwalks will come from logs salvaged from lakes and reservoirs by Triton Logging of Victoria. The electricity monitors are the work of Reliable Controls Corporation of Victoria. All are likely to get a boost from Dockside Green's status as the highest-rated development in North America under LEED standards.

An unplanned consequence of Dockside is Farmer Construction's decision to use it, as project contractor, to train First Nations youth in the building trades, doing something for the unemployment problem in local native communities and the shortage of construction workers. "I get goosebumps about that," says Van Bellegem.