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Purpose Building

Eric Chisholm is a principal at Purpose Building, a company that develops sustainable solutions for healthy, high-performing buildings. They help owners, developers, and investors to reorient their strategies and carry out deep retrofits to support carbon reduction.

Eric Chisholm and the other founders of the Purpose Building team have been involved in the clean buildings industry for decades, both independently and in collaboration with one another. But it was only in 2018 that they all came together as one organization to combine their expertise. We’re Still ON talked with Eric about green construction, job creation, and why the low-carbon transition requires creative solutions..

Purpose Building describes itself as managing critical processes for high-performing buildings. What does that entail?

Purpose Building came together with the goal of supporting low carbon construction and operation. We focus this around sustainability coordination, performance analysis, asset improvement, and portfolio planning. We do that for new developments, for the operation of existing buildings, and the renewal of buildings that need a major investment just to get back to an operable state. There are moments where it’s like, “this is it” — when developers and investors recognize they have an opportunity not just to keep an old building running, but to modernize it to achieve financial success and high performance for decades to come. We help them through that.

Your team has been involved in the industry for a long time. So why come together now? What’s inspiring you to pursue low carbon building solutions at this particular moment?

We’re a new company with a long history, and we’ve always enjoyed working together. But what led us to form Purpose Building was the realization that the urgency for climate action has accelerated while the industry response is still moving at yesterday’s pace. We realized that we need to move farther, faster, to accomplish the kind of transition that needs to take place.

That urgency demands new ideas being brought to market, not just repeating what’s already been done. And we realized we were well-suited to respond to this urgency, because we had been involved in that process for the past 10, 20, 30 years. So it made a lot of sense to create Purpose Building as a group that’s nimble, agile, and experienced, and capable of delivering tailored energy solutions for high-performing buildings.

There’s often a misconception that people have to choose between financial or environmental success. But the truth is that these are both viable; there just needs to be a willingness to make that kind of investment.

That’s right. On the surface, a low carbon plan and a low-cost plan don’t immediately align. For example, the cost premiums for green construction — let’s say 1% to 5% — can feel enormous. But once you look at the decades or even centuries that the building might be around, you can completely recoup that investment. That long-term gain matters to some developers, but others just want to build and sell. Part of this is about finding the right business strategies and ownership strategies that make the right players benefit. It takes work to align these goals and find the right balance, but it’s not impossible. There are many examples of buildings that have achieved significant carbon reduction alongside financial success. There’s a building on Bloor Street in Toronto that achieved a 36% reduction in energy use and savings of almost half a million dollars in annual operational cost. There’s an apartment tower in Ottawa that replaced its gas-fired heating system with a geothermal heat pump, which allowed them to offer air-conditioning in suites and thus made the property more competitive to renters. So it’s possible, and it’s happening.

Do you see the market growing for low-carbon business across the board? Does this feel like the future of Canada’s economy, or is it still a work in progress?

It’s probably a bit of both. I’d like to say this is the clear and only future, but there will be others who say the opposite. What I can say, though, is that we have the numbers on our side. The Canada Green Building Council’s trend report stated that in 2011, 37% of surveyed firms responded that over 30% of their projects were “green construction”. By 2017, that number had doubled to 70% of respondents. So the interest in green construction has skyrocketed, and we don't see that growth slowing down. The interest is there because the value has been proven. The next challenge will be focusing that interest on the right upcoming activities.

Do you think that interest is translating to real opportunities for growth?

I do. In 2017, I co-authored a paper with the Canada Green Building Council called Roadmap to Retrofits in Canada. The paper answers the question, “What is the environmental opportunity, and what is the financial opportunity to create jobs across the country if we retrofit our old buildings to a low carbon economy?” It details economic advantages like new jobs in construction that you just can’t outsource. You can’t build a building in the UK and then ship it over here. You need local talent. As well, there’s additional job creation related to construction around the materials and the products they're supplied.

And since high performance buildings have lower operating costs, owners have more free capital to redirect elsewhere, further stimulating the economy and creating more jobs. You also reduce the tax burden, since high performance buildings put less stress on the electric grid. It’s a win-win-win that is driving growth and advancing further opportunities.

What does a dream partnership for Purpose Building look like? What collaborations or opportunities would be impactful for the company and its larger vision?

We are collaborators at heart, and so there are a lot of answers to that. The solutions we need are not purely about energy. They’ll be about energy, but they’ll also be about transportation, aesthetics, health, and so on. We are already collaborating with experts in those areas.

We are exploring the idea of involving investors directly, as they increasingly take on the role of good corporate citizens. We’re seeing investment groups being built around the premise of, “we will only invest in products that are responsible.” Between our expertise and an investor’s influence, I think we could see a very impressive outcome.

The Spotlight ON series highlights key organizations making a difference in the world of clean energy and climate action. Connect with the team at We’re Still ON to shine a Spotlight on your organization’s clean energy work — email us at contact@still-on.ca.

What initiative/project/organization would you like to share?

Purpose Building delivers solutions for healthy, long-life buildings that work in a low-carbon, circular economy by managing the processes that are most critical to the success of these projects:

Sustainability Coordination: Achieving better-than-industry performance with a team committed to better outcomes and knowing where to shift the supply chain.

Performance Analysis: We develop and steward performance targets through the design development process to remove barriers and keep teams focused on solutions

Asset Improvement: We support each stage of planning and implementation at aging assets to help achieve the full potential of each property.

Portfolio Programming: Achieving maximum value across a portfolio involves identifying the best opportunities for performance improvement and developing programs for optimizing implementation. We develop solutions to align performance with the corporate mandate.

How is it helping advance the low carbon transition?

Organizational strategies that worked yesterday will not work tomorrow. Transitioning to low-carbon real estate requires change. Purpose Building focus on the actions and levers that will effectively manage that change. We know what works, and what doesn’t, when going to the next level for New Build, Deep Retrofit, and Operational Improvement projects in each asset class. By working with Purpose, you get the results you want.

How can others get involved? What type of support are you looking for?

We are seeking partners eager to build or operate high performance buildings. This future will require collaborative action from many players including investors, owners and tenants, asset managers, property and operations managers, architects, and engineers.