Q&A With Wells Baker: How Minto Stays Ahead Of The Curve On Sustainability
Green trailblazer Minto built Canada’s first LEED-certified high-rise residence. Pointing to its current project roster, conservation and sustainable design director Wells Baker tells us how his firm continues to lead.
We snapped Wells across from Minto Westside, under construction at Bathurst and Front. The two-tower, 690-unit development (seen below) will have a grocery store.
Bisnow: What’s worth noting about Minto Westside's sustainability features?
Wells Baker: One thing is our electric vehicle promotion, a partnership with Nissan Canada. The promotion's now ended, but it was successful in encouraging people to think more about electric vehicles as their car of choice. The promotion gave every new buyer of a Minto Westside condo and a parking space a free Nissan Leaf. We launched the program last fall and several people took advantage of the offer. We’ve seen an uptick in people wanting EV charging stations in their parking space at this project. It’s a sign of things to come, I think. Electric vehicles are great solution for urban living: no emissions and easy to charge.
Also, each suite at Westside has a heat recovery ventilator—a component in the air handler unit that takes in fresh air from outside and exhausts air from the bathroom. So you’re getting fresh air in an energy-efficient way. HRVs are standard in low-rise construction, but the vast majority of condo developers continue to just dump air into corridors and hope it makes its way into units—and in some cases as little as 6% does. It’s not that they’re intentionally trying to create poorer air quality in the building, it’s just the most inexpensive way to deliver ventilation air.
Bisnow: Minto’s consistently been ahead of the curve when it comes to green building, particularly on LEED.
Wells Baker: We’ve designed LEED buildings since the mid-2000s. In 2006, Minto Radiance (at Yonge and Sheppard) was the first high-rise residential building certified under LEED Canada, which had just launched at that point. We installed electrical sub-metering at that building, which is now a requirement for high-rise buildings, but wasn’t then. We also put in sub-metering for domestic cold and hot water, which still isn’t required by code. In 2008, Minto Roehampton was the first LEED Gold purpose-built rental building. And Minto Midtown (at Yonge and Eglinton) was North America’s largest residential LEED Gold building when it was built.
Minto has always incorporated sustainability into its operations. It started with the company owners (Minto began in Ottawa in 1955 as Mercury Homes, a suburban builder founded by the Greenberg brothers: Louis, Gilbert, Irving and Lorry). They were passionate about building high-quality homes. Over the years the business has evolved and the Greenbergs' passion became not only about operating and owning buildings but doing it in a way that wasn’t harmful to the planet. Being a successful company shouldn’t come at the expense of destroying your habitat or the place you live. If we develop in a way that also supports the ecosystems we live in, we’re doing something right.
Above, Wells (fourth from right), back in the day with his Queen’s University solar car racing team.
Bisnow: How did you come to get involved in sustainable development?
Wells Baker: I started off studying architecture in university (Waterloo) but decided I didn’t want to become one. So I switched to mechanical engineering (at Queen’s) and after graduation ended up back in the building industry. For a while I thought I’d go into automotive world; at Queen’s I got involved in building a solar-powered car and racing it in the US and Australia, which was really exciting. And it was the first time I became aware of renewable energy and sustainable design practices. I realized that a lot of the things we accepted as normal—like the extensive use of fossil fuels—were not really long-term solutions for us.
I worked for a decade or so doing mechanical system design for buildings, specializing in sustainable and green buildings and LEED. I worked on a number of the first LEED buildings in Canada before joining Minto: K Rock Centre in Kingston, which was one of the first hockey arenas to achieve LEED; and St. Gabriel’s Church near Bayview Village, one of the first LEED-certified churches in Canada.
I joined Minto in 2010 to oversee the sustainable design aspects for our new projects and existing building retrofits. It’s been great. As a consultant, I often felt decisions had been made by the time I got to the table and had a chance to influence a project’s design. Working directly for a developer, your voice gets heard much earlier in the process, so there’s greater opportunity to influence the final outcome. Which is key in green building, because many ideas are impossible to implement cost-effectively if they’re introduced too late. And things that seem crazy and outlandish, if you adjust the design early on, can be accomplished for little cost.
Minto Yorkville Park will pursue LEED, like all Minto projects, including Minto30Roe, a condo near Yonge and Eglinton occupying later this year. “All of our buildings have hit LEED Silver or Gold,” Wells notes.
Bisnow: Minto is a true innovator on sustainable design. What about developers who green-wash, presenting as sustainable when they’re really not?
Wells Baker: Buyers today are more sophisticated than in years past, and they have a better understanding of companies they deal with. Where sexy marketing and branding exercises may have worked before, there’s huge desire for authenticity now, and people can see through something that’s just a smoke-and-mirrors game. Green-washing was a huge issue for us when green building was starting out; other developers would say, ‘We put in low-VOC paint, we’ve got a great green building, buy from us!’ When everything was new and people didn't know what questions to ask, it was easy to get suckered by builders jumping on the green bandwagon.
But homebuyers are far more knowledgeable today and third-party certifications like LEED are a great way to build trust with our customers. We used to spend a lot of time in our sales centres educating buyers about all the green features we’ve incorporated into our buildings (like HRVs, dual-flush toilets, rainwater harvesting, multi-chute recycling). It was a huge undertaking, and I think LEED has been a helpful symbol that triggers acknowledgement and understanding that the builder has gone above and beyond code.
We did a study with TD Bank that analyzed all LEED condo buildings built in Toronto in the past decade and how they compared from a resale perspective with similar buildings in location, size and age, that weren’t LEED-certified. It showed that on average there's an 11% premium associated with LEED. LEED Silver comes with a 5.7% premium while LEED Gold has a 14.9% premium. If you think about the cost of condos in Toronto, that’s a huge bump in resale value.