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Andy Yan, Vancouver’s Duke of Data and Director of the Simon Fraser City program asks~what do we do when the glass towers that make Vancouver’s “Vancouverism” are sustainably outed  as hungry  power hogs? What is the 21st century sustainable version of Vancouver’s glass tower style? As reported in The Guardian and as Price Tags has previously written the iconic glass towers are becoming a faux pas “because they are too difficult and expensive to cool.”

As  Simon Sturgis, an adviser to the government and the Greater London Authority, as well as chairman of the Royal Institute of British Architects sustainability group observed “If you’re using standard glass facades you need a lot of energy to cool them down, and using a lot of energy equates to a lot of carbon emissions.”

Because glass towers reflect a lot of heat into the buildings, air conditioning has been standard to cool towers. But the International Energy Agency now estimates that forty percent  of all global carbon dioxide emissions come from construction, demolishing, heating and cooling buildings. And here’s a staggering statistic~the energy for air conditioning has doubled in the last twenty years, and makes up 14 percent of all energy used.

In New York City Mayor de Blasio is demanding that glass towers now meet new energy efficient standards, which really means less use of glass and steel in towers. While other cities have not yet grasped the connection between warmer hotter climatic conditions and glazed towers, new regulations will come under play to ensure that glass towers are efficient for the lifecycle of the building.

While glass does provide solar heat gain in colder weather, that is not too optimal in Vancouver’s overcast winters. Natural ventilation could ostensibly mitigate up to 70 percent of air conditioning loads, but locations in inner cities with traffic noise and air pollution may make that not a practical option.

There is glazing that can block out sunshine on hot days as used in The Edge building in Amsterdam. Using smaller windows on three sides of the building reduces heat gain, and the windows can be opened for ventilation. While the Edge is perceived as one of the most green buildings in the world, laminated glass panels used in these high efficiency buildings are expensive to fabricate, and pose a challenge for recycling.

What will the next reiteration of  Vancouverism’s glass tower look like? And will that form be rethought as well?

Below is a YouTube video on The Edge in Amsterdam describing some of that building’s innovations.



  1. Not just that… the energy consumption that we use to move people up and down… everyone neglects the elevators, but in reality that is also an issue.

    Having grown up in a 4 story walk-up in Europe, I would like to think that this is one of the better building forms to encourage around the world… elevators are sparsely used, people get some exercise every day, and actually, get to meet their neighbors from time to time and strike up a bit of a social relationship.

    It is something to consider.

    1. A quick google of the energy consumption of elevators reveals that it is not one of our more pressing issues, and as I mentioned in my other comment, energy coming from BC Hydro is 95% renewable already.

      These ideas bring up interesting questions — what really is the most an average person can do toward GHG reduction, and what is the most governments can do? In areas where coal burning is producing electricity, the answers would be quite different than in BC. I would guess the biggest ones here in BC, on a personal level would be transportation – avoid car use, and have an efficient hybrid or electric car if you must drive. Eat less meat, especially beef. Plant trees.

    2. Well, as a senior who has arthritis, I would not live in a multi-storey apartment building without a lift. I can still manage stairs quite well, except when carrying groceries, a loaded suitcase, or a pack with library books, a laptop, a water bottle, a camera and my lunch.

      Universal accessibility in architecture and urban design for all ages and abilities should not require advocacy. It should be the first standard. Anything less is discriminatory.

      1. That is completely understood and I agree with you 100%. In no way was my comment meant to say that design should exclude universal accessibility. As a parent with young children, I understand issues that impact me at this stage in life and as someone with grandparents, I also understand that particular stage in life to a certain extent.

        My point is that buildings should be designed in such a way that they encourage people to live healthy lifestyles and create opportunities for social interactions within the small community that is created by that building rather than limiting the choices that people can make which is definitely the case with a highrise building. I’ve lived in both in Vancouver and I find it ludicrous that you cannot use the staircases in many highrises to go up… you can only use them in case of an emergency to go down.

      2. I see your point in high rises. I have lived in low and mid rises in six neighbourhoods over the years and now in a small detached fixer upper home on a postage stamp lot. I used stairs in all of them, and only two had lifts.

        Regarding social interaction, I am the veteran of rentals with tenant management boards, as well as rentals with a landlord, all with young families, elderly couples and singles. Social interaction in close proximity is overrated. What is important is balance. Individuals and families need to have a sense of privacy and defensible space near their homes, with the ability to freely socialize further away. Front porches neatly illustrate that. While elevated above the street one can chat with neighbours and enjoy keeping an eye on the street from a discrete distance. Similarly, playgrounds with the often ear-splitting screams of kids should be placed adjacent to family housing, and quiet courtyards should be retained for seniors and singles. That is, design should be a tool that addresses everyone’s needs.

        Getting along with your neighbours requires two-way co-operation. There are 10 houses on my half-block. We get along with all our neighbours, with one glaring exception. Unfortunately, that dude lives next door and he has treated us with anger over the fact that a tree we inherited with the house shades his deck. He has butchered that tree deep into my side of the line a number of times over the years (most recently last week), despite my efforts to keep it fairly well trimmed. He’s a bit of a nutbar who doesn’t see it as vandalizing someone else’s property, or cares to acknowledge the distasteful traits of people who’d do such a thing. We decided to screen him out with raised fences and tall hedges. The difference is remarkable: We finally obtained a modicum of privacy in our own yard. The funny thing is that the other side of the house is completely open — no fence, no hedge — and we share it daily with far higher quality neighbours.

        Building fences really does maintain good neighbourliness, or at least screens the bad ones out. So does having sound proof walls that dull down the neighbour’s penchant for 2,000 sports and music channels played at the 6-beer volume level on a big screen TV hung on the party wall. There is something to be said about the London townhouse with two independent solid masonry load-bearing walls between neighbours and 10-foot tall brick walls surrounding a private courtyard garden, all while living on a very sociable narrow mews just down the street from a park with quiet spaces and playgrounds.

  2. “you need a lot of energy to cool them down, and using a lot of energy equates to a lot of carbon emissions.”

    BC Hydro is 95% renewable energy, so I don’t really see the problem. I’m all for efficiency, but I would guess there are lower hanging fruit if reducing carbon is the goal. Concrete production, for example, is one of the worlds biggest GHG emitters and there are many potential innovations that can reduce that dramatically including doing more with wood.

    1. Concrete is a very useful material, but yes, there are emission-reducing techniques and alternatives. Displacing the Portland cement with fly ash and other waste products and substituting rock-sourced aggregates with other waste products from industry (e.g. glass-like slag from the Trail smelter) can lower the carbon emissions by more than a third and actually result in harder concrete. Using clean electricity to power an induction cement kiln will lower emissions even more dramatically. Mass engineered wood (ideally suited to BC!) is arising as a good alternative structural material for buildings up to 30 stories tall that is precision-fabricated, renewable and utilizes waste wood and plantation trees.

      I suggest that both these tacks should be pursued concurrently.

  3. Good, it is high time someone drove a shard through the heart of these bland glass towers. Bad for the environment and bad for architecture.

  4. As well, glass towers are a very tiresome look for a city, with all those standard size windows. They’ve given Vancouver a cluttery ugly look.
    Plus, living in a glass condo leaves little wall space for art.

  5. My other complaint with glass towers is that as someone on the inside, I really dislike floor-to-ceiling windows. Older apartment buildings with walls below the windows provide space for bookshelves or other uses.

    As for ventilation, windows in newer towers open only slightly lest roaming toddlers fall out. I think this such extreme safetyism is socially pernicious. We should give parents the tools to keep windows from opening too far – but also give residents the ability to open them wide.

    Now I must rant. I abhor the tall barriers on the south platform of Brentwood Skytrain station. When it was built, it offered a spectacular view south to Metrotown. Now it feels like a cage at the zoo. It was a sign of things to come. I believe that complete safety (“one life lost is too much”) is a deplorable principle, routinely deployed rhetorically as an excuse for oppressive control. Zero risk is paternalistic and robs people of the ability to learn responsibility. Children who play in “safe” playgrounds suffer more injuries, whereas those in “dangerous” playgrounds learn to look after themselves. If we were really serious about safety, we would be going after cars (whose countless victims often could not be saved by any amount of taking responsibility), not windows. Which should open.

  6. The glass towers being build nowadays have smaller windows (to reduce solar gain) than the floor to ceiling windows of the past.
    Even on the new Burrard Gateway tower, you can see that the windows are not full width of the openings.
    I expect that will be a disappointment for many buyers who expect expansive views.

    Regarding air conditioning, in Vancouver, it’s mostly higher end condos that have air conditioning. The “typical” condo does not have it. Also, in Vancouver’s relatively temperate climate, as long as your condo has efficient operable windows (ie that open wide, not the small flip-put ones) – you can get some air circulation.

    Also, who do people always forget that occupants can close their window blinds/curtains to reduce solar gain? It does wonders! Oh, maybe because they LIKE the big windows for the views.

    The other thing is that smaller, solar gain reducing windows create dark depressing interior spaces in our dreary winters. Floor to ceiling wall to wall windows does wonders for SAD.

    Here’s a pic of what’s being built at Burrard Gateway from McMinsen at
    The glass panels that are darker glass are opaque spandrel glass.

    So you can see that energy efficiency is already impacting – and caused the evolution of – the glass tower.

  7. I certainly hope that people will not vilify me for living in a glass tower! It’s the space which was available 10+ years ago in our desired neighbourhood, and affords us w/ a very high quality of life. Our floor-to-ceiling windows permit light into the unit, which really aids our mood during Vancouver’s long grey winters. We did install some bookcases in front of windows, because the location worked for our daily life. The concrete acts as a bit of a heat-sink, so our container garden is able to support some unusual species for this region.
    Yes, elevators use a bit of energy. But if our region continues to attract people from around the continent, and the world, we need somewhere to house them. What we don’t need is more fancy-schmancy +$5mil 2br apartments and not so much above 25 or 30 stories.
    Every city needs to find the appropriate mix of high, mid, and low density housing build. I hope that Vancouver will agree to a variety of ways to gently add density to our residential neighbourhoods.

  8. I live in glass tower with central AC and walk to work. For what I pay in rent I could also get a single family home and drive to work. Guess which way I will produce more CO2? It doesn’t even compare. There is nothing I can do with my HVAC that can come close to the CO2 emissions I’d have heating/cooling a house and driving every day. What matters is the per-capita energy expenditure and it’s vastly less even without driving when people live in any kind of condo as compared to a SFH.

    My apartment is tiny and would be dreary cell if not for the ceiling to floor windows. If it had to have tiny windows, i’d prefer the house and have much higher emissions. This only works because of the large windows I have and it is better for the environment.

    In other words, there is no problem to solve here. It’s a case of somebody trying a one-size fits all, and well, it does not fit!

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