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Viewpoint: Net Zero energy needs to be the norm

Anyone trained in design can do it

By Albert Bicol

As teenage environmental advocate Greta Thunberg has argued repeatedly, we already know what we have to do and how we have to do it. There is no more time for prevarication, postponement or the smoke and mirrors of political expediency. For the general public, climate change is no longer an abstract and remote concept, nor even a topic still open for debate: It is happening all around us in real time.  

A succession of scientific reports and communiques with increasingly dire predictions and urgent calls to action, have provoked a positive reaction from both public and private sectors. Many municipalities across the world have passed non-partisan resolutions declaring a climate change emergency, while more and more companies have committed to net-zero operations on ambitious timelines. Exactly how these lofty commitments will translate into action, in most cases, remains to be seen.  

Moreover, few of them are building owners and developers and, when one considers the huge carbon impact of the construction industry worldwide, we cannot afford to wait. I do not believe we can rely on owners and developers, politicians and city officials – nor the general public to stop – or even slow down climate change in the building industry. Professionals such as architects and engineers must step up and become active agents in transforming the current norms in building design.  

Architects and engineers understand as well as anybody what is required to stop climate change, and most recognize the roles they can play to accelerate the process, yet too many are content to toe the line of minimally meeting the locally mandated energy code standards, as directed by their clients.  

At this moment in time, one might well ask why the architectural and engineering professions do not conduct themselves more like their peers in the medical professions. The Coronavirus that is now killing thousands of people and impacting economies around the world, has rightly been addressed with  unprecedented urgency and immediacy. This  response  is far beyond anything the design and construction industry has achieved – or even imagined in response to the long-running global catastrophe we refer to as climate change. 

In every country, the medical profession is advising the public what they need to do to protect themselves and curb the spread of this virus. Yet climate change, which we know is killing far many more people, threatening or causing the extinction of animal species, disrupting weather patterns, polluting land and water and causing severe economic distress for many countries has provoked no such reaction from the design professions. 

We are the creators and stewards of the built environment and we need to do much more. As mechanical engineering consultants, our firm designs every project to Net Zero standard, including complex energy modelling, at the regular fee for a traditional building. Our aim is to demonstrate to clients that virtually any building can be designed down to net zero, with no overall fee cost premium.  If the client chooses not to accept the net zero solution, we will redesign the building to be code compliant in terms of energy use, at no additional cost.  We consider this to be a risk worth taking because the stakes for not doing the right thing are too high. 

While Net Zero and Carbon Neutral buildings are beginning to appear in Canada and in other countries around the world, progress remains slow. We believe every engineer and every architect should take up the challenge now. 

Designing net-zero and carbon neutral buildings is neither challenging nor complex. The primary goal in NZE building design is to reduce energy consumption or energy use intensity (EUI) to the point that the relatively small amount of input energy required can be provided from renewable sources. The typical target for EUI is about 100 kWh/m2 per year or less.  The lower the EUI the better, as lower energy demand requires less investment in renewables.  Some of our projects are achieving as low as 20 kWh/m2 per year, requirements that are now being reflected in the BC Step Code and Vancouver Green Building Policy.  

Among the features common to both net zero and carbon neutral buildings are:

• An integrated design process, to ensure that synergies between disciplines can be identified early in the project and the advantages they offer in energy savings can be capitalized upon.

• A focus on passive design, including optimal solar orientation, a highly insulated and airtight building envelope and natural ventilation.

• Local heat sources and on-site energy generation. 

Anyone trained in design can do it. The biggest challenge and most important step in NZE design is reducing energy demand and that all begins with the passive design. Depending on the climate, if the passive architecture of the building can be optimized, air conditioning can be eliminated and that elimination goes a long way in achieving the energy reduction goals.

The most successful projects are the ones that carefully analyze the opportunities offered by the natural environment and are ‘reverse engineered.’ Too many designers are still trying to find the latest building technologies such as air conditioning, heating, etc. It is becoming harder and harder to find the incremental efficiencies in these high-tech systems and they invariably come with a high capital cost. By reducing the overall energy demand, we can go back to much more basic systems, such as heat recovery ventilators and electric baseboard heaters. These systems have a lower capital cost, lower maintenance and more reliable performance.

NZE buildings are also more resilient in the face of climate change, being no longer dependent on centralized energy infrastructure, and better able to maintain internal temperatures over long periods should energy systems fail altogether. Since passive design concepts have been proven over centuries, if not millennia, these buildings are essentially futureproof.

The passive design approach can be applied to all kinds of buildings, with our current portfolio ranging from a small storage facility in Vancouver to the multi-billion dollar expansion of Trudeau Airport in Montreal. Whatever the project, we consider our responsibility to be both a professional and a personal one: I have a 10-year old daughter whose future wellbeing further increases the commitment and resolve I feel as a professional engineer.

As design professionals, we are all involved in building the future. If we make a personal commitment to ensure that future is the best it can be, then we may at last achieve the climate change goals we have set for ourselves. 

Albert Bicol, P.Eng. is Principal of AB Consulting in Vancouver.