In February of 2015, Royal Dutch Shell announced its decision to cancel its Pierre River oil sands project due to lower global oil prices. Discussion in the media focused on the economic implications, while within sustainability circles, the concern was for the effect lower oil prices have on growth in the renewable energy sector. What is overlooked from a Canadian perspective is that lower energy prices, when they result in cancellation of projects, has a positive impact on Canada’s ability to meet GHG reduction commitments.

An inconvenient truth for the green building industry is that the cancellation of a single oil sands project is far more significant than the collective efforts that we have made to reduce emissions through our work.  Pierre River was projected to produce 200,000 barrels per day. This equates to over 5 MT of GHG emissions per year; just under 1% of Canada’s total  GHG emissions in 2013. This is approximately 150 times the aggregated impact of GHG reductions from LEED Certified buildings in Canada.

The figures highlight a startling comparison between the impact of oil sands extraction and the strides made in GHG emission reduction through buildings. While this should not deter one from striving to reduce the impact of our new and existing building stock, it does highlight the relative scale of our impact and the collective challenge we face.

Government of Canada projections make it clear that the GHG impact of our energy extraction sector will far outweigh the conservation efforts made across all other sectors, leading to the conclusion that a broader approach to social and cultural change must occur if our response to the threat of climate change is to be successful.

HCMA Social Sustainability
Much conventional sustainable design thinking is  predicated on the  assumption that we will be successful in avoiding the impacts of climate change.  Many now believe this assumption is no longer valid and that we should work to help communities adapt to the local and regional effects of climate change, whether this be flood resistance,  drought, sea level rise or some other phenomenon.

At hcma, we believe  that we must pursue a broader sustainability agenda that, while remaining committed to continuous improvement in environmental performance, places increased emphasis on the social and physical conditions that will lead to increased societal resilience. We have recognized that the social spaces that bring diverse sectors of the community together are the crucibles of information sharing and trust building - and thus contribute to increased social cohesion, inclusive decision making and action in the collective interest.

A building constructed above the flood plain is an ‘ark’ of sorts that will see some of us safely to the point when the waters subside, but the important question is whether all species [or sectors of society] will be invited aboard.

hcma’s thinking in this area has developed over 20 years. In 1996, the City of Victoria and the Capital Regional District [CRD] co-sponsored a design competition for the revitalization of Centennial Square in Victoria and a new headquarters building for the CRD’s Engineering Department that was to demonstrate “A high level of environmental design and construction.”

This was a key milestone in sustainable design in Canada, predating the introduction of LEED by five years. When our firm won this competition it was a key milestone for us as well. While ultimately our design was not implemented the sustainable design strategies and thinking, including both environmental measures and activation of  the social spaces, were highly influential in our future work.

These early days of the sustainable design movement were characterized by a shared, almost evangelical, zeal to make a difference. In the absence of rating systems and other tools, design decisions were based upon precedent, assumptions, and intuition. Twenty years later, our collective approach to social sustainability is in much the same place.

While LEED has been a key component of our sustainable design process over the last 15 years, recent advances in certification systems, such as the Living Building Challenge, and in methodologies and approaches, like regenerative design, have begun to include a more complex and comprehensive set of criteria. We welcome these changes and have been integrating them into our work with projects such as the UniverCity Childcare Centre.


Currently, hcma is examining the potential for our work to affect the social infrastructure that makes communities more cohesive, more equitable and adaptable to change, and have recognized the need to better understand how to positively influence the social indicators of sustainability.

This has emerged for us for a variety of reasons including observations of the social dynamics at several of our community facilities, including the LEED Gold Certified West Vancouver Community Centre.  Its success on a social level may be more notable than its environmental performance and this has motivated us to examine the complex reasons for its positive social impact.

This will provide us with the tools necessary to replicate, improve and maximize our social impact in the future. To this end we have expanded our sustainable design efforts, to include a comprehensive framework for the conditions of social sustainability.

Since the Bruntland Commission report of 1987, much of the rhetoric of sustainable design has been founded on the premise of a “three legged stool” combining environmental, economic and social sustainability. However much of the focus of contemporary sustainable design thinking has been on the environmental leg of the stool. Only now are we expanding our parameters to include the social leg.

What is Social Sustainability?

One of the challenges when trying to address the social factors of sustainability is the absence of a commonly held definition without which it is challenging to frame analysis, structure discussions and propose solutions. Not only do we, as an industry, not fully understand the factors of social sustainability, but more importantly we don’t yet know how to consistently measure them.

This is a critical issue as much of the structure of sustainable design analysis relies on metrics and measurement. To help address this challenge we have embraced a definition adopted by The Young Foundation, whereby social sustainability is “a process for creating sustainable, successful places that promote well-being, by understanding what people need from the places they live and work.  Social sustainability combines the design of the physical realm with the design of the social world – infrastructure to support social and cultural life, social amenities, systems for citizen engagement and space for people and places to evolve.”  [Bacon, Cochrane, Woodcraft 2012].

Importantly, they recognize that the challenge involves designing both the physical and social aspects of a community. This presents an uncomfortable challenge to Architects, as many have recently shied away from attempts to claim significant direct social impact of our work partially in response to failures of simplistic social engineering attempts with large-scale post-war urban re-developments. This reluctance to accept the inherent social potential of our work has contributed to the lack of understanding and a reticence to discuss and tackle it head on.

hcma's Social Sustainability Framework

In the absence of a recognized standard or framework, hcma is developing its  own.  Even in its early stage this framework has been helpful to focus our efforts, our research and to broaden our thinking.

The framework has three primary components; Principles, Process and Products.  The “principles” component, which includes aspects such as equity, social inclusion, security and adaptability, provides the “why?” to the exercise and is the foundation for the other components.

Building upon the principles are the “processes” that we utilize in the delivery of our projects. These processes span the entire life-cycle of a building from pre-design through construction and post-occupancy and include such things as public consultation, governance and post-occupancy evaluation.  It is within the processes section that “the design of the social world” is most directly affected.

The “products” component builds upon the principles and processes and captures the physical design strategies that can impact the indicators of social sustainability.  These include our “Ten Design Principles for Public Buildings”; connectedness, sense of ownership, safety, efficiency, clarity, inclusivity, variety, spaces for all, healthy environments and experiential quality. The elements of this framework require ongoing research and analysis but we are confident that in structuring the discussion in this way we will be able to move the issues forward and share and collaborate with others, including those in other disciplines.


A Way Forward

While it remains critical that we continue to pursue higher levels of environmental performance we must be more critical of the rhetoric and claims that are commonplace.  Design decisions should also be viewed through the lens of adaptation, resilience and social equity. Most importantly we must be advocates for much deeper change.

Broadening our reach to include social sustainability will require a change in thinking and behaviour. We must learn to be comfortable with ambiguity and in attempting to solve problems that we don’t understand how to measure.

We will collaborate with expertise that spans not only the technical sciences but the social sciences as well; sociologists, anthropologists and others who purse an understanding of the complexity of social dynamics. In expanding our influence we will recognize our potential to influence decisions outside of the traditional boundaries of the building industry.

The next era of responsible design thinking will recognize the complex nature of the inter-relationships between environmental, economic and social issues. Through a more critical eye and a broadening of our focus we will be able to maximize our impact in helping to prepare our communities for the challenges that lie ahead

This article was originally published in the September issue of SAB Magazine.