“If you are in a position of power, you really need to acknowledge the power that you have to make a difference and speak up. Pretending that you don’t have it is a disservice to yourself and to others. So use it to advocate, to organize, and mostly to empower the young people around you.”

Michelle Xuereb

Michelle is an architect, and the Director of Innovation at BDP Quadrangle in Toronto. Her passion for the environment and her desire to positively impact communities was the original impetus for her pursuing a career in architecture.  Michelle describes her story of becoming an architect in her recent TEDx Toronto talk in 2020 – which we have provided a link to in our Show Notes– and talks about the importance of being able to bring both right and left-brain thinking to the environmental and social challenges we now face.



In her role as the Director of Innovation, Michelle is the ‘go-to’ person for planning and phasing of her firm’s most intricate renovation work, and its large, complicated projects. 

Her larger role in the studio is to keep current with the growing body of knowledge of environmental issues and to ensure that sustainability is embedded in key decisions made by the firm and her team.  This includes reviewing the firm’s internal and external practices to minimize the environmental footprint of projects, and heading up the studio’s Green Team, which consults on projects and strives to provide strategies for targeting and achieving sustainability goals on every project.

Michelle has also been active in many local green initiatives, such as the consultation processes with the City of Toronto for the Toronto Green Standard and Bird-Friendly Development Guidelines as well as The Archetype Sustainable Condo Project with Sustainable Buildings Canada. 

As the past Vice Chair of the Board of Directors of Sustainable Buildings Canada, she was invited to co-facilitate workshops for the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change’s ‘Paths to Zero’ initiative, a directive that seeks to reach zero waste, carbon, energy and water on provincial buildings. Michelle also sat on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors for the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC), Greater Toronto Chapter from 2010 to 2012.

In our podcast today, Michelle and I talk about some of the important strategies for mitigating carbon emissions – both operational and embodied carbon – but also about how we can design to improve our social infrastructure in order to increase climate change resilience, exploring some of the ideas she outlined in her TEDX talk.


What Architects, Engineers, and Planners Can Do To Reduce CO2 Emissions and Increase Our Resilience to Climate Change

I think first and foremost, as architects, engineers, planners, we need to acknowledge that we have a lot of power. We create the built environment for people and it’s an enormous responsibility. Almost 40% of global emissions come from buildings and that’s huge. The reason I say it’s important to acknowledge your power is because with that power, we have the potential to make great change. We are often asked to give our opinion and we should have opinions on these things and be able to advocate for the right thing.

On the institutional side, I’d say a lot of the right things already happening in buildings. There are, third party certifications. There is usually fulsome energy reporting and that sort of thing. On the private sector side, it’s a little bit more challenging. On the private sector side developers want to have a level playing field, right? They’re competing and will not typically go beyond the basic level of municipal standards… so advocating for major changes to be made to building codes and sustainability development guidelines, I think is huge. And I think we need to engage the municipalities and support and encourage them to make these changes because they worry about making them too fast,… but we want to encourage them to be pushing the envelope. If they see that they have the support of the local professionals, they are bound to push a little harder on it.

I think the other piece is really just making sure we have these conversations on all projects, regardless of whether that is a priority of a particular client. I think it is essential to have the discussion to be advocating for these changes and to point out the fact that our codes and standards, aren’t keeping up with the rate of change. We know this. We know that we’re designing using energy model files that are based on historical weather data, but most people don’t know that. And though we know the climate is changing, and we see that it’s changing, we’re not required to design for that. So I do think that we have some responsibility as professionals to at least state this. I think this is part of this accelerating change that’s happening.

Michelle presenting at TEDX Toronto 2020. (Photo from Michelle)

Michelle presenting at TEDX Toronto 2020. (Photo from Michelle)


Then, thinking architecturally of course, one of the biggest things that we can do is to do what we do best – to really, really show the vision and inspire others towards that vision. And this vision really needs to prioritize passive design principles that buildings need to respond to the environment that’s around it. The architecture itself has to work with or without its mechanical and electrical systems. 

And I think we need to be questioning the status quo. I mean, constantly questioning what we did last time and staying on top of the science, sharing the science and not in a trying-to-change-the-world kind of way, but in a way that describes why it is that this makes good business sense to be designing for the future and to be thinking about the future now. This can be a tough call, something like a condominium is very different discussion than an intentional rental building where someone’s keeping it over in time and thinking about things like durability and maintenance. So those are a couple of different things.

What Michelle Thinks Are The Best Ways To Drive Large Scale Change and Large Scale Action

I think in terms of driving large scale change, again, I would come back to the fact that policy is a huge driver. And I think, right now, our public process is a bit broken. It’s a bit siloed. I think there are many City priorities and they’re often in conflict with one another and maybe not holistically understood. 

Public meetings can sometimes feel like lip service. I think we’ve all been on both sides of the public meeting – there as the public, and there as the person presenting at the public meeting. And I have to say that, as the audience, I’ve found it a little unnerving how little attention can sometimes be paid by the professionals leading those meetings, to the opinions that are being expressed in the room. So, I think that part of policy is engagement with the community and trust in the process. And I think to make large scale change, you need trust in the public process. I think it’s really, really key. And I think we’ve seen that through the pandemic, right? It’s like when, when we have felt like we didn’t trust our leaders, things have gone off kilter when things were done without authority. 

I was thinking recently that the city could really use an innovation process because I feel like communities know what needs to happen and what needs to change within their communities. So, imagine if there was a system for collecting those good ideas within, within a community. And if there was a person whose role, it was to make sure that those things happened and happened quickly because when people make suggestions, see the uptake, see it happen, it builds trust. When people see a bunch of quick wins, they will continue to engage.

What Michelle Thinks The Role Of Machine Learning, Big Data, and Artificial Intelligence Might Play In Leveraging Our Ability To Cope With Climate Change.

I think part of understanding the kinds of complexity that we’re talking about, where we are in the current history of the world, is going to be about finding a way to use machine learning and AI to help us to make good decisions and to make those decisions quickly. The best book that I’ve read on this topic is Thank You for Being Late by Thomas Friedman. It’s a pretty dense book, but the subheading is what I like. It’s called “An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” 

So, he talks about the fact that that everything is accelerating, the changing technology, the changing climate, the changing markets, the globalized world – everything! All of this is converging at once and it’s too much information for all of us to take in. Right? It’s just too much. We can’t know everything. So, we have to figure out a way to leverage this, and how to ask the right questions. I think it’s going to take people cooperating to make the changes happen in order to adapt and prosper with all of this change that’s happening. The outcome is really going to depend on our ability to build community, which, you know, isn’t easy in an age where you have social media where the President [of the United States] can incite violence with a single tweet. That’s the scary side of things, but then there’s the really beneficial side where, he [Friedman] talks about turning artificial intelligence into intelligent assistance.

And I thought that was wonderful. If you look at something like trying to learn math. You do a test and the AI creates a course, that’s specific to you based on what you know and what you want to learn. Stuff like that is incredible. So really, I think that big data is about helping us to learn and make better decisions. 

When I think about architecture, for instance, I think about something like generative design tools, and I think the value there is getting it [the tool] to do the work for us around those repetitive tasks. So we can do the stuff that humans do best, you know, think about things like the quality of space and architecture as a community builder and integration into neighbourhoods, right? Because that’s something AI is not going be able to do for us. It’ll be able to tell us statistically where it should go and that part. But we still need to make the ethical decisions and add the human element.

Michelle’s Thoughts on Urban Density As a Strategy For Reducing Per Capita Greenhous Gas Emissions.

In vertical neighbourhoods, I think we need to start to think about the quality of space within a tower, thinking about breaking them up into to vertical neighbourhoods, breaking the building up with social spaces, you know, let’s say every five floors having a social space that’s connected to it. We’ve looked at having social spaces per floor. We’ve looked at things like widening corridors and making front porches within a corridor. I mean, all these things take away from, saleable area, so you have to be aware of that. In terms of quality of space, even just a little recess at your front door where you could put a little chair and run into a neighbour or we’ve looked at things like, putting a glass side light, beside your door so that you can see in to see if somebody is home. Eyes on the street.

In terms of carbon, one of the other things that happens when we build in cities is we tend to do a lot of underground parking and in our embodied carbon studies that we’ve done recently, the real answer is to not build underground because underground parking is incredibly carbon intensive. So, moving away from parking minimums, writing letters of advocacy, we’re re-looking at the parking requirements in the City of Toronto and asking why we have them? The market can dictate whether we need them or not.

What Michelle Thinks Are Some of The More Innovative, Effective and Consequential Ideas She Is Seeing.

Honestly, Craig, everyone’s talking about data, data, data, data, data! Data is in everything. Everyone wants to know how to collect it, what to do with it, what we’re going to get out of it. So there’s definitely a lot of thought being given to how to do that, how to process that just at the scale of our own firm, but also how to do that for the projects that we’re building and to understand again, in private sector development that it can be difficult to get information about your buildings after you build them – finding a way to close a loop. So things like digital twins tied together with sensors in the building, and now you have this model that you can use to iterate real time on things. That’s really exciting! And that allows you to test your ideas before you implement them. 

I talked about the “Neighbourhood Nest” idea. We’ve had a lot of interest in that, which has been really exciting – when you come up with a concept project and there’s some uptake. So now it’s about making a proof of concept.  You come up with this idea and then how do you make it real? 

There is a lot of talk around design for manufacturer. Lots of potential there to build at scale and to use technology, to do what it does best, right? So, you think about the way that we manufacture goods and you’ve got a lot of control of the supply chain. One of the things that happens in architecture now is that everything is bespoke. So, you don’t have a lot of control each time you’re bidding for each piece. But imagine if you were designing with a mindset of manufacturing, that changes things completely. You have a lot more control, there’s more safety for the workers. There’s more control, less waste.

Michelle On What Keeps Her Going And Gives Her Hope When Things Look Dark

I think there’s going to be some tough times that we’re going to have to go through, but honestly it, it’s people that give me hope. It’s people that continue to push through when things are tough. It’s people that get up every morning and keep trying to make a difference every day. People that choose to be lifelong learners and are constantly trying to make things better. We have the technology to do everything we need to do, and now we need the political will to do the follow-through! A book I’ve been meaning to read is the The Future We Choose. it’s by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnack. They were essential to the Paris Climate Agreements, for getting people all on side. And the book is about two futures. 

There’s a reason I’ve hesitated to read this book. Because it talks about the two futures: What happens if we keep things as they are – the status quo; and what happens if we do what needs to be done and we act upon it. And I think the reason I’ve hesitated is because I don’t necessarily want to see what happens if we don’t do anything about where we need to go. Because I think we can’t go to that dark vision. We have to go to where we need to go. And when I think about that, and I think about the people who are doing the right thing, and I think about these very knowledgeable people that say “We have the technology. It’s only at this point in time in our history that we have had the technology to do what needs to be done. So now we just have to do it.” And we’ve seen through COVID that change can happen quickly. You know, we were able to pay people living wage for a period of time. 

So it’s things like riding my bike on the Bloor Street bike lanes gives me hope – because that happened and it happened fast. Seeing people eating in the streets, that gives me hope. It’s those things. It’s where we’ve managed to accelerate, see what needs to be done, and take care of it.

What Advice Michelle Had for Listeners About What They Could Do To Be Part Of Making A Difference In Meeting The Challenges Of The Twenty First Century Imperative And Maintaining Hope

So, I’d say if you are in a position of power, you really need to acknowledge the power that you have to make a difference and speak up. That pretending that you don’t have it is a disservice to yourself and to others! So, use it to advocate, to organize, and to empower the young people around you. They have big ideas! They’ve been learning about this from day one. It’s been part of their education. We need to combine our experience, our wisdom, with their ingenuity and their willingness to engage technology because they have the skills and we have some wisdom. And I think we need to find a way to combine those things in a very real way to make change happen. And I think as architects, we need to just be having these conversations, on every project, regardless of whether it’s a priority for the client.

I think we need to be having the conversation. It should just be standard. And we need to learn the language that is understood by the people we’re speaking to and speak it. 

And, finally, I think that you need a learning mindset – just never stop learning. We can’t, we can’t stop. It used to be that you had your education and then you stopped. As professionals, we’ve always had to do continuing education, but I think this is  more than continuing education. This is lifelong learning. It doesn’t stop, because the change is continuing to happen. It’s going to continue to happen at an accelerated rate. So, we have to find a way to tap in and find our sources, find our sources of inspiration.

Michelle’s Book and Podcast Recommendations

  1. A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher W. Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson (Goodreads Author), Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, Shlomo Angel. From Goodreads: “At the core of A Pattern Language is the philosophy that in designing their environments people always rely on certain ‘languages,’ which, like the languages we speak, allow them to articulate and communicate an infinite variety of designs within a formal system which gives them coherence.”
  2. Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, by Thomas L. Friedman. From Goodreads:  “In his most ambitious work to date, Thomas L. Friedman shows that we have entered an age of dizzying acceleration–and explains how to live in it. Due to an exponential increase in computing power, climbers atop Mount Everest enjoy excellent cell-phone service and self-driving cars are taking to the roads. A parallel explosion of economic interdependency has created new riches as well as spiraling debt burdens. Meanwhile, Mother Nature is also seeing dramatic changes as carbon levels rise and species go extinct, with compounding results.”
  3. The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres, Tom Rivett-Carnac. From Goodreads: “In The Future We Choose, Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac–who led negotiations for the United Nations during the historic Paris Agreement of 2015–have written a cautionary but optimistic book about the world’s changing climate and the fate of humanity. The authors outline two possible scenarios for our planet. In one, they describe what life on Earth will be like by 2050 if we fail to meet the Paris climate targets. In the other, they lay out what it will be like to live in a carbon neutral, regenerative world. They argue for confronting the climate crisis head-on, with determination and optimism. The Future We Choose presents our options and tells us what governments, corporations, and each of us can and must do to fend off disaster.”
  4. Zugunruhe: The Inner Migration to Profound Environmental Change by Jason F. McLennan. From Goodreads:  Just prior to periods of great migration, certain species display agitation and restlessness – a phenomenon referred to by scientists as zugunruhe. McLennan identifies a similar pattern emerging among people yearning for a sustainable future. This book is intended as a catalyst for anyone interested in exploring a deeper, more meaningful connection to the environmental movement. Zugunruhe is a work of creative genius that draws us into an engaging journey of self-discovery, brings the biggest and most frightening issues of our time up close, and invites our engagement, notes David Korten, It will leave you envisioning human possibilities you never previously imagined. Profound, personal and practical, McLennan’s narrative reminds us that individual efforts ripple outward and can lead to revolutionary change for the betterment of people and planet.
  5. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change by Stephen R. Covey. From Goodreads:  When Stephen Covey first released The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, the book became an instant rage because people suddenly got up and took notice that their lives were headed off in the wrong direction; and more than that, they realized that there were so many simple things they could do in order to navigate their life correctly. This book was wonderful education for people, education in how to live life effectively and get closer to the ideal of being a ‘success’ in life.
  6. A Bit of Optimism Podcast by Simon Sinek. From the Podcast’s About: Simon Sinek is an unshakable optimist who believes in a bright future and our ability to build it together. He discovered remarkable patterns about how the greatest leaders and organizations think, act and communicate.  Simon may be best known for popularizing the concept of WHY in his first TED Talk in 2009. It rose to become the third most watched on TED.com, with over 40 million views and subtitled in 47 languages.

How You Can Connect With Michelle

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