Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to support the design of buildings: A case study for the design of a zero-carbon and energy positive interpretation center for UQROP1 in Quebec, Canada
Building designers are stumbling towards approaching sustainability at its full complexity. Integrated design teams must seek approaches and definitions for sustainability that are stable and that critically integrate the technical, architectural, social, cultural and economic dimensions. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can provide that stability since they offer a clear outlook for the next decade, an inclusive and progressive agenda, and international and national commitment. This research aims to explore how the SDGs can inform the design process of buildings, and to shed light on possible means of integrating them in building projects. The research proposes an analysis grid composed of 3 axes (design, engineering and operation) each with 4 integration levels (not integrated, standard driven, beyond standards, and innovative). The interpretation center for birds of prey (UQROP - Quebec Union of rehabilitation of birds of prey) is used as a case study for experimenting with the application of the proposed approach. Based on the mission and vision of the UQROP and the project, 8 of 17 SDGs were identified as relevant areas of focus. Through the use of a survey and collective discussions, the project team identified the SDGs relating to Water (SDG 6), Clean energy (SDG 7), Innovation (SDG 9) and Partnership (SDG 17) to be innovatively integrated. The building achieves this integration through a combination of strategies which touch upon the 3 proposed axes.
Keywords: Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); integrated design; design for sustainability; architecture design; case study
There are many approaches to designing, assessing and certifying ecological and sustainable buildings. In the literature, the interchangeable use of words such as ecological, environment, high-performance, green, and sustainable points us to the challenge in defining sustainability in the built environment. Today, and although there are more than 100 definitions for sustainability and 600 environmental assessment and rating tools available on the global scale (Doan et al., 2017), design scholars are pointing to the inability of available tools to capture the complexity of sustainability in buildings (Guy & Moore, 2004, 2007; Fisher, 2008; Marshall-Baker, 2011). Scholars are also pointing to the fact that the definitions of sustainability promoted by mainstream assessment and certification tools have a tendency to neglect the contextual, social and economic aspects related to buildings (Brandon & Lombardi, 2011; Bernardi, Carlucci, Cornaro, & Bohne, 2017; Doan et al., 2017). It is argued that many of the tools and definition reduce the concept of sustainability to measurable indicators which have resulted in credit and assessment optimization approaches in design (McMinn & Polo, 2005; Cucuzzella, 2015).
In order to advance beyond the current limitation, an expanded context for the design process of sustainable buildings process has to be imagined: one which places the process at the intersection of the global and local, while considering the temporal dimension – history, as well as medium and long-term future outlooks (Ni, de Souza, Lu, & Goh, 2015; Silvestri & Gulati, 2015; Sterman, 2015; Roetzel, Fuller, & Rajagopalan, 2017). Today, integrated design teams must seek definitions for sustainability that are stable and that critically integrate the technical, architectural, social, cultural and economic dimensions. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which evolved in 2015 from the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), are able to provide that stability since they provide a clear outlook for the next 10 years around an inclusive and progressive plan (United Nations, 2015; Wysokińska, 2017). Additionally, the agenda and the goals are supported by global, national and local commitments for the next 10 years (United Nations, 2015, 2017; Allen, Metternicht, & Wiedmann, 2018; Pedersen, 2018).
In this research, the SDGs are used as the organizing principle for understanding the design of building project. The paper starts by presenting a brief background on the SDGs and their current application – with a specific focus on Canada. The paper then proposes a method for measuring the level of integration of the SDGs’ topics in building design. A case study is selected for illustrating the applicability of the method in real building projects. The results obtained from the integrated design team are then presented and discussed. The paper concludes by highlighting the key findings and their implications as well as indicating some possible future research directions.
The SDGs move beyond the traditional triple bottom line approach to include institutional, cultural and social questions and focus on collaborative and participatory approaches to attaining sustainable development (United Nations, 2015; Wysokińska, 2017). Although there has been some criticism regarding the tangible local effects of these global agendas, international agreements – such as the Paris Accord - have created an urged government to increasingly embrace sustainability principles (De Gregorio, 2016; Liu, Huang, Huang, Baetz, & Pittendrigh, 2018). This, in turn, was translated in the design field by the adoption of certification standards, in public projects (Gouvernement du Québec, 2008; Burch, Shaw, Dale, & Robinson, 2014; BC Housing & British Columbia, 2016). Today, as governments move their focus and efforts on meeting the 2030 SDG targets, we could assume that building and design projects will be expected to address the issues presented in this UN agenda. By looking at current design initiatives around the SDGs, such as the Oslo Manifesto (“The Oslo Manifesto: Design and Architecture for the SDGs,” 2015), it is clear that buildings can contribute to the agenda beyond Goal 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. This creates opportunities for designers and design scholars to explore further the possibility of adopting the SDGs as a framework for building projects.
Canada adopted the UN 2030 agenda in 2015. The country has also submitted a voluntary national review on their progress in implementing the agenda in 2018 (Government of Canada, 2018). The report indicates that the large landmass and the cold climate result in placing energy (i.e. clean energy and emissions) as an important issue for Canada in the coming years. Although Canada has an overall high standard of social and economic development, challenges related to poverty have also been identified to affect about 3 millions of Canada’s population (Government of Canada, 2018). These data are also confirmed by the latest rankings which place Canada at 10/16 rank for social performance – ranking higher than the US, France, Belgium, Ireland, Japan and the UK. (The Conference Board of Canada, 2017b). However, on the environmental rankings, Canada is the 3rd last (The Conference Board of Canada, 2017a). Within Canada, Quebec ranks at the top in both categories when compared to the other provinces (The Conference Board of Canada, 2017b, 2017a). The province has been putting a large focus on ecological performance as well as sustainable development since the adoption of Sustainable Development Act in 2006 (National Assembly of Quebec, 2006) and places in important focus on the SDGs in the latest provincial plans.
The paper uses a case study, an interpretation center for birds of prey in Quebec, to test the possible intersection of the SDGs with building design. For the design of their new interpretation center, the Union Québécoise de Réhabilitation des Oiseaux de Proie (UQROP) has set ambitious targets to create a state-of-the-art facility that integrates technologies, systems and design to achieve a highly resource efficient, energy positive, and zero-carbon building. The union (, whose central mission is the protection of birds of prey and their natural habitats, aims through this project to augment their commitments to the protection of the environment by tackling broader sustainable development topics. The project constitutes an important case study for this SDGs focused design approach since the UQROP’s mission and vision already incorporate aspects such as educational and awareness goals, skill building, as well as partnership and collaboration. Additionally, the project goals also expand the focus of union to encompass issues relating to water, energy, innovation, and equitable growth. The integrated design team for the project is composed of more than 20 researchers, practitioners, and artists from the fields of design, architecture, building engineering, controls, animation and museology.
The UQROP building is a unique project for this study. Located on a 22 hectares of land encompassing four different natural habitats in the heart of the largest protected forest in the region. The site of the project offers unique opportunities for discovery and learning through more than 2.5 km of pedestrian paths and trails. The building, which is expected to welcome 40,000 visitors/year, will allow the union to further expand its educational activities through permanent and temporary exhibitions as well as discovery and multifunctional rooms. It will also enable more visitors to observe and experience the seasonal changes within the four natural habitats of the site. The building will also house a state-of-the-art veterinary facility and a winter shelter for birds. The project, with a target EUI of 60kWh/(m2·yr), aims to be one of the most energy-efficient institutional buildings in Quebec and Canada. This target will be met by incorporating technologies such as direct expansion CO2 geothermal system, predictive control system, and building-integrated photovoltaic and thermal systems (BIPVT). Additionally, and by adding to the design team experts in animation and museology, the building’s exhibition and educational spaces have become an opportunity for research-creation projects which combine different art and design practices to innovatively communicate knowledge. Lastly, the project will offer suggestions as to how to improve the code especially in the way it handles innovative technologies or processes that will become mainstream in the near future. It will also pave the way for the creation of a practical design guide for energy-positive buildings for cold climates. Figure 1. presents a preliminary design of the building.
Figure 1. Preliminary design illustration of the UQROP interpretation center
By intersecting UQROP’s mission, vision as well the project’s program and goals with the SDGs, 8 of 17 goals were identified as relevant areas of focus. In order to adapt the global sustainable development goals to the local context of the project, each of the 8 goals was re-interpreted in the form of a design question supported by several key areas of focus – identified from within the targets of the agenda - relevant to the context and project (United Nations, 2015). The goals, questions, and elements of focus are presented in Table 1.
Table 1. Goals, design questions and elements of focus – based on and adapted from (“The Oslo Manifesto: Design and Architecture for the SDGs,” 2015; United Nations, 2015)
|Sustainable Development Goal||Design Question||Elements of Focus|
|Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all||How does the project tackle the topic of education and lifelong learning?|
- Skill building
- Hands-on sustainability learning opportunities
- diversity, inclusion, and equality
- Accessibility for building and individual educational spaces
- Indigenous knowledge
|Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all||How does the project tackle the topic of water management and sanitation?|
- Reduction of wastewater
- Capturing rain and stormwater
- recycling and reusing grey water
- Eliminating hazardous dumping
- water efficiency
- water management systems
|Goal 7. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all||How does the project tackle the topic of energy?|
- Clean energy and renewables
- Energy efficiency and conservation
- Clean energy technology
- Research, technology and, innovation
|Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all||How does the project tackle the topic of sustainable growth and inclusion?|
- Sustainable tourism
- Promotion of local culture
- Work/job creation
- Equal access to jobs and training
- Work insertion
|Goal 9. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation||How does the project tackle the topic of innovation?|
- Innovation in design
- Technology integration
- Scientific and design research
|Goal 11. Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable||How does the project tackle the topic of resilience?|
- Protection of cultural and natural heritage
- Reduction of the human footprint
- Reduction of emissions and waste
- Considerate urbanization
- Participatory and inclusive processes
|Goal 15. Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss||How does the project tackle the topic of terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity?|
- Protection of forests
- Reducing degradation of natural habitats
- Protect threatened species
- Raising awareness on illegal trafficking of wildlife products
- Managing invasive species
- Protect biodiversity
|Goal 17. Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development||How does the project tackle the topic of partnership?|
- Promotion of sustainable technologies and process
- Public-private partnerships
- Partnerships with civil society
- Building momentum for progress for sustainable development
In order to incorporate the selected goals in the integrated design process, an analysis grid is proposed – presented in Figure 2. The grid organizes the process of the SDGs integration around 3 axes: namely design (dealing with aspects such as form, function or materials), building engineering (dealing with aspects such as systems, controls, and technologies) and building operation (dealing with aspects such as management, usage, and education/awareness). The grid also proposes 4 distinct levels of integration for each of the axis:
Figure 2. SDGs design analysis grid
Not Integrated: since each of the goals’ integration will be analyzed for each of the 3 axes, some goals might only be integrated into one dimension of the project – making them not integrated on the other axes
Standard or precedent driven: this level of integration entails looking at and depending on available examples and standards for addressing specific topics
Beyond precedents: this level entails augmenting the available approaches and standards to the topic – i.e. using available approaches or tools while relatively improving them
Innovative integration: this highest-level of integration entails developing innovative approaches to tackle the specific topic in the design and planning for the project
The proposed tool allows for a qualitative analysis of the SDGs integration in buildings design. The tool can be used to facilitate discussions around complex sustainability challenges in the design and construction process as well as the broader topics which the SDGs encompass. The tool also aims to move beyond the prescriptive and technical methods and to focus on setting, defining and assessing the social and cultural goals of design projects. By using the proposed assessment during the design process, integrated design teams will also be able to critically consider and discuss non-technical design dimensions which are often misused or applied superficially in highly technological projects, such as net-zero or energy-positive buildings.
Each team member identified through a survey the level and means of integration for each of the 8 selected goals. The information was compiled and presented as the general integrative approach of the project. The analyzed data is then presented in a series of grids based on Figure 1. The researchers also provide comments on the difference between the assessments based on the observations collected from the design charettes. Since the design team of the UQROP building includes members with overlapping skills and design focuses (i.e. multiple engineers, more than one representative for UQROP, and a number of design students), the responses received were divided and compared based on the assessors’ roles. The paper places more focus on the goals which were judged to be strongly integrated into multiple axes (i.e. reaching level 3 or above - beyond precedents and innovative integration). For these goals, the researchers compiled relevant project information in order to illustrate how this deep integration was achieved.
In the survey, each respondent proposed a level of integration on the design, engineering and operation axes (grading the integration from 1 to 4) for each goal. The respondents also provided open-ended comments on each of the goals to justify and clarify their rating. Overall 18 members of the design completed the survey; generating more than 430 data points. The results of the survey were also discussed collectively in the design charrettes. For the sake of presenting the data, the respondents were divided into three groups: 1) architects (researchers and practitioners) which included 6 respondents, 2) engineers (researchers and practitioners) which included 8 respondents, and 3) non-designers (managers and facilitators) which included 4 respondents.
The overall integration level of each of the 8 goals (calculated based on the average across the 3 axes) is shown in Figure 3. The overall average integration across the 8 goals was rated at 2.87. This indicates that the team assessed that the proposed design moves beyond standards and precedents in its integration of the topics of 8 SDGs. The integration levels of the water management and sanitation (SDG 6), energy (SDG 7), and partnership (SDG 17) goals were ranked on average above 3 (beyond precedents). The energy goal was ranked highest at 3.44 an average across the 3 axes. For the purpose of the analysis, the innovation goal (SDG 9)– with an average rated integration level of 2.98 will also be considered – since it approaches the integration level 3 sought after.
Figure 3. Overall integration level of the 8 selected goals as rated by the design team
When comparing the overall rating across the 3 groups of responders (seen in Figure 4), it is clear that the architects were the most critical in the rating –indicating the lowest integration level across the 8 goals at an overall average of 2.47. On the other hand, non-designers (managers and facilitators) ranked the integration the highest at a 3.41 overall average. Both the rating of architects and engineered followed the same pattern – where the 4 goals (highlighted in red in Figure 3) were rated highest. In addition to these 4 goals, non-designers also rated the resilience goal (SDG 11) at high integration level – with an average integration level of 3.67.
Figure 4. Overall integration level of the 8 selected goals as rated by each group of responders
When looking at the overall rating distribution of the selected goals across the three axes (design, engineering, and operation), it is clear that the highest assessed level of integration was achieved through engineering interventions. The average engineering integration was assessed at 3.17 for water and sanitation (SDG 6), 3.61 for Energy (SDG 7), 3.33 for innovation (SDG 9). However, in the partnership goal (SDG 17), the highest integration was achieved through architectural design at an assessed integration level of 3.06. Overall, the team evaluated that the least integration was achieved through the operation of the building. These details can be seen in Figure 5.
When comparing the rating of the 3 groups of responders across the 3 axes, architects rated the lowest integration on the design axis and the highest in operation, Non-designers rated the engineering the highest, and engineers rated the integration through design and engineering almost equally. For the 4 selected goals (i.e. SDGs 6, 7, 9 and 17), architects indicated that most of the integration is achieved through engineering and operation interventions, engineers indicated that the integration is more balanced across the 3 axes, and non-designers indicated that the integration is mainly achieved through engineering and design. The distribution of the architects’ assessment is presented in Figure 6, that of engineers in Figure 7 and that of non-designers in Figure 8.
Figure 5. Design team’s rating of SDG 6, 7, 9 and 17 integration across the 3 axes
Figure 6. Architects’ rating of SDG 6, 7, 9 and 17 integration across the 3 axes
Figure 6. Engineers’ rating of SDG 6, 7, 9 and 17 integration across the 3 axes
Figure 7. Non-designers’ rating of SDG 6, 7, 9 and 17 integration across the 3 axes
Based on the open-ended comments received in the survey responses, which were complemented by the group discussions in the design charettes, the team identified that the integration of the 8 SDGs was achieved through a combination of different design interventions. Due to the technical nature of the project – being an energy positive building - and a large number of engineers on the design team, the team also indicated that most of the design interventions are technical and technology based. However, some of these interventions required sophisticated integration between design-engineering or design-engineering-operation. The nature of the project and composition of the team might justify the engineering bias visible in the survey results - where integration through engineering was ranked highest.
For the water and sanitation goal (SDG 6), the highest integration was identified to be achieved through engineering and operation (3.17 and 3.11 respectively). The team identified key design interventions that addressed this goal. (1) the use of compostable toilets. This is one of the first application of compostable toilets in an institutional building in Quebec. The application of the toilets aims to collect the waste from the visitor’s toilets and to move it to a general composting chamber located outside the useable space of the building. This involved devising a system for moving the waste and ensure the correct design of the composting chamber (requiring integrating architectural, engineering and operational knowledge). The compost will help UQROP team support the landscape of the site. (2) stormwater and rainwater collection and management. Although stormwater management has become a standard in ecological design, the design team proposed to go beyond the current standards – in terms of quantity of water stored and level of use. (3) The use of native plants. Since the construction process will require removing some of the original vegetation (to clear the construction site), the team proposed to re-vegetate the site using native plants to restore the site conditions and to reduce the use of water. Additionally, all trees that are on the construction plot will be relocated.
The clean energy goal (SDG 7) was rated as having the highest integration in this project. The goal’s integration also exceeded 3 (beyond precedents) integration across the three axes of analysis. The team identified a number of interventions which directly relate to this goal. 1) This integration was mainly achieved through the building integrated photovoltaic thermal (BIPVT) system. The proposed system covers almost 600 m2 (as seen in the preliminary design in Figure 1). Although photovoltaics on buildings aren’t new, what is special here is that the same system will generate electricity and capture useful heat for space and domestic water heating. Then, by integrating into the envelope, it becomes part of the building. This reduces the material redundancy and allows a closer integration between engineering and architectural objectives. This technology is still in its infancy but the design team has already developed recognized expertise in the field, having worked on three pioneering BIPVT projects: the Écoterra net-zero energy house in Eastman, QC, the John Molson School of Business building at Concordia University, and the Bibliothèque de Varennes. 2) The electric generation system will also be complemented with grid integration to manage the excess energy produced. 3) Direct expansion CO2 geothermal system. This system can be up to 25% more efficient than a conventional geothermal system while occupying 20-40% less space. The UQROP building will break new ground as one of the first building to incorporate this technology. 4) Predictive control system. Equally challenging and innovative is to integrate a sophisticated predictive control system as part of the early design process. It is unprecedented to have this possibility to use controls to influence the design at such an early stage of a building project. Although these systems are mainly engineering driven, their application in the project required sophisticated integration in the design and the operation of the building.
The team identified 4 key design interventions which integrate the topics of innovation and infrastructure sustainable development goal (SDG 9). This integration was mainly engineering focused – with an engineering integration rating of 3.33. (1) the innovative use of water tanks for energy storage. This innovative approach aims to utilize the available firefighting water tanks to store heat and energy that can be used by the air conditioning systems. The approach optimizes the use of the available thermal heat storage resources of the building. (2) Hybrid ventilation system. The proposes system optimizes the ventilation of the building based on the external weather conditions in order to make use of natural ventilation when possible. This system will be able to significantly improve the indoor air quality while reducing energy consumption especially in shoulder seasons. (3) Finally, the team cited the various integrated energy solutions as feeding into the innovation goal since they are exemplars of innovation in design, they require advanced technology integration and are results of scientific and design research. The team indicated that the integration of energy, hybrid ventilation system and predictive control within the early design phase of building as some of the key innovations in the project. (
Finally, in the partnership goal (SDG 17), the team identified 3 key integration features in the project. The integration of this goal was mainly achieved through the architectural and design of the building. (1) The project is one of the first buildings to integrate practitioners and researchers (private – educational partnership). The design team included more than 10 young who are worked collaboratively and in an interdisciplinary manner with both senior researchers and practitioners. (2) The inclusion of government researchers and research agencies. The design team included researchers working for the government of Canada (specifically for CanmetENERGY – which is part of Natural Resources Canada). This exemplified the building of positive partnerships between academic, private and public institutions to integrate state of the art technologies in building projects. This collaboration and its outcomes can also support the development of codes and standards specific to net-zero and energy-positive buildings. (3) Finally, the respondents unanimously cited the unique coherence in the design team as an important and distinguishing factor from other projects. During the discussions, the team indicated that, despite the interdisciplinarity, there was a unique positivity in exploring and implementing new design ideas and solutions. The team also cited that this was not necessarily their experience in other projects – where tensions are usually common between the engineers and architects. The team indicated that such coherence is certainly a pre-requisite for building momentum for progress for sustainable development – one of SDG 17’s key indicators.
This paper explores the potential of using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as the guiding principle for understanding and analyzing building design. A framework for the analysis is developed where goals can be assessed based on their intergradation levels (from not integrated to innovatively integrated) across 3 axes (design, engineering and operation). The paper presented the application of the framework in a real building project – the new UQROP bird interpretation center. The researchers were directly involved in the project and were able to guide the design team through the application of the framework. The researchers also facilitated the discussions around the SDGs.
Applying the framework enabled the integrated design team to organize and relate their specific design interventions to the 2030 agenda for sustainable development (United Nations, 2015). In this project 8 of the 17 goals were identified as relevant topics of design focus. The team rated the integration of all the 8 goals to be above 2 – indicating a move beyond current standards. The analysis of the result highlighted the differences in the rating between the 3 groups in the team (architects, engineers and non-designers). The goals which were rated to be the most integrated – above 3 – in the project are water and sanitation (SDG 6), energy (SDG 7), innovation (SDG 9) and partnership (SDG 17). Through the open-ended comments and collective discussions in the design charrettes, the design team was able to make clear the specific interventions that enabled the beyond precedent integration of the 4 goals listed above.
This paper presents a new approach which aims to concretely bridge integrated building design (including aspects of architecture, engineering and operation) with the broader sustainable development goals as presented in the agenda 2030 of the united nations (United Nations, 2015). This research and the proposed method can provide important insights for architects and design teams on the possibilities of using SDGs as frameworks for approaching and analyzing the design of sustainable buildings. Future research should focus on using the proposed framework to analyze projects of different focuses – such as projects that have clear social or cultural missions or that have a community development focus – in order to explore the design intervention relevant to the different SDGs (beyond the 8 which were selected for this case). With enough project analyzed, a repertoire of design interventions relating to each of the 17 goals could be developed and used as a reference in future projects.
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Union Québécoise de Réhabilitation des Oiseaux de Proie - Quebec union for the rehabilitation of birds of prey↩
PhD Candidate, INDI Program - Concordia University. Vanier Scholar (SSHRC) – Concordia Public Scholar↩
Associate Professor, Design and Computation Arts. Concordia University Research Chair in Integrated Design, Ecology, And Sustainability (IDEAS) for the Built Environment.↩
CEng MCIBSE, LEED AP. Assistant Professor, Building, Civil, and Environmental Engineering↩