What is building as a system, and why is it important?

In our report, Assessment of Occupational Skills Needs and Gaps for the Energy Efficiency Buildings Workforce, we discussed the potential of buildings to help Canada reach its carbon reduction goals by 2050. One way in which this can be achieved is through using the “building as a system” approach in design and construction. We’ll take a look at what this term means and what the benefits are.

What is building as a system?

In construction and architecture, building as a system means focusing on how all the components of a building interact. It includes everything from the exterior to the interior and even further afield to include connections to municipal sewer lines and electrical grids. This holistic approach considers the performance of each component in relation to the others for the entirety of their life cycle.

The way components of a building interact can affect their individual performance or the performance of another part. By looking at everything together, the performance of the building as a whole can be assessed.

This is key when it comes to energy efficiency – highly efficient components don’t necessarily equate to an efficient building if their relation to other components is not considered[1].

Before the introduction of the systems approach, building components and parts were looked at in isolation[2]. This led to issues with buildings becoming too hot, too cold, having high condensation levels, noise complaints from occupants or flooding where the building’s connection to municipal sewage systems was not taken into consideration[3].

Constructing buildings under the building as a system mindset requires a range of technical and soft skills and the collaboration of individuals trained in a variety of subjects including physical sciences, engineering, economics, behavioural sciences, life sciences, architecture, and construction work.

Only with collaboration between architects, electricians, construction workers, and planners can all aspects of the building, and how they work together, be considered.

What are the benefits of the building as a system approach?

There are numerous benefits of the building as a system approach.

The building sector is cited as Canada’s “lowest hanging fruit” when it comes to achieving significant carbon reduction by 2050[4]. The building as a system approach offers a complete picture of the efficiency of a building in both the short and long-term. This information is key to identifying areas of improvement.

The improved energy efficiency of buildings has benefits both for the occupants through lowering their bills and on a wider scale with improved grid reliability for energy providers and reduced carbon emissions overall.

Other benefits of building as a system include increasing the health and safety of occupants, improving the durability of buildings[5] and higher occupant satisfaction[6]. These have been achieved through observations such as how sunlight might glare on occupants’ screens, how noise travels between units and how fires can be slowed down to increase safety amongst others.

Though the building as a system approach may cost more in the short term, some believe that, in the long-term, it will be key to lowering costs overall. New buildings are often constructed in a “lowest bid wins” approach[7] which fails to take into account that energy efficiency components usually cost less over their lifetime even though the purchase price may be initially higher.


The building as a system approach involves looking at all aspects of a building from planning and design to construction operations and decommissioning. This collaborative, integrated approach requires individuals from many different industries to work together.

Benefits of this systems-mindset include improved energy efficiency, health and safety, durability, lower lifetime costs and occupant happiness.

There are plenty of opportunities to implement this approach within Canada’s construction sector, where a green approach, and a little foresight, can go a long way to making a positive environmental and social impact.

Find out more about building as a system and energy efficiency


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