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.


Making building performance a selling point, and moving on from the glass tower

By Richard Witt, Executive Principal, Quadrangle & Michelle Xuereb, Director of Innovation, Quadrangle

Sustainable building design is not a new concept. With the development and implementation of LEED in the early 1990s, sustainability became mainstream but has struggled to effect real change in the way we think about building performance, requirements or aesthetics. Economics and sustainable building design are at odds – sustainability is an extra cost, weighed against budget and relative value.

The Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat concluded in their study Downtown High-Rise vs. Suburban Low-Rise Building that recently completed buildings significantly underperform in comparison to their counterparts from 50 years ago. The days of the glass skyscraper are coming to an end. Passive systems direct the way forward, as opposed to compensating for inefficiency with active systems.

Buildings are the key contributor and solution to climate change mitigation and adaptation.

According to the latest inventory release (2017) by The City of Toronto, 52% of GHG emissions in Toronto come from buildings, predominantly from burning natural gas to heat indoor spaces and water. Consequently, buildings must also be a climate change solution. The City of Toronto recognizes this in its Zero Emissions Building Framework, which is why the Toronto Green Standard (TGS) has us on a path to net zero buildings by 2030. What about the code? There is a plan to move Toronto to net zero by 2030, but it is not clear, given the current political climate, whether this proposal will be executed. Passive design solutions increase durability and climate change resilience while lowering energy usage, embodied energy from maintenance, and GHG emissions.

Passive solutions allow us to both mitigate and adapt to changing weather.

Based on the Climate Driver Study completed for the City of Toronto, we know that days are getting hotter, there are more of them and there are more of them strung together in heat waves. We are also experiencing larger storms, with heavier amounts of precipitation falling at once. The main issue we will have with our buildings is overheating and flash flooding – both in combination with power outages. This again reinforces the need for passive design solutions.

These power outages generally happen on our hottest and coldest days as a result of people cranking their AC or heating. The higher the total effective R-value of the building, the better they are able to maintain the indoor air temperature in the case of extreme temperatures without power.

The City of Toronto recommends that people be able to function independently for a minimum of 72 hours without power. In a residential building, maintaining indoor temperature is key to allowing people to shelter in place within their homes.

• At a basic level, a building is meant to shelter people from the weather – to keep people warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s hot. Glass is a very poor insulator, leaving residents feeling physically uncomfortable and paying high energy bills.

• As architects, the best thing you can do is reduce the amount of glass and increase the amount of well-insulated walls. We understand that keeping windows to about 40% of the wall area is the single most effective way to reduce the energy footprint of a building. Real walls with windows may seem old fashioned, but they don’t need to be. Our focus is on creating a thoughtful, well-designed building with an aesthetic that lends itself to real walls and windows.

• Unlike glass, insulation slows down the movement of heat. This allows you to hold onto heat during winter, making people more comfortable and more likely to actually use the spaces at the perimeter of their unit.


University District, a new 80-hectare mixed-use neighbourhood in northwest Calgary, welcomed its first residents in 2018. The masterplan for the community was created by West Campus Development Trust (WCDT) through a public engagement process that set new standards of authenticity and transparency for projects of this type. The process helped WCDT to refine its plans, build trust with stakeholders and attract buyers.

Transparency Builds Trust

The traditional approach to redevelopment has been “design and defend,” where the developer finalizes a plan and then reveals it to the public. The trouble with design and defend is that it can spark resistance and resentment in neighbours and other stakeholders.

Rather than designing and defending, James Robertson, President &CEO for WCDT and his team   adopted a “transparency builds trust” approach.

Stakeholder Working Groups

The land that became University District is surrounded by five established neighbourhoods, the Foothills Medical Centre and it’s also home to the Alberta Children’s Hospital, the Ronald McDonald House and the University of Calgary. WCDT decided to establish relationships with all these stakeholders as early in the process as possible. WCDT recognized early on that you can’t just come into an area in the middle of established, well-loved communities and assume you can build whatever you want.

In redevelopment projects, the developer usually begins to meet the public as part of the land use re-designation application process. For University District, the public engagement project began well in advance of this stage, with a series of Stakeholder Working Groups. Each of these meetings, which functioned more like committees than open houses, focused on a single element of community design.

Each event included representatives from the surrounding communities and the main stakeholders, as well as the WCDT design team. This ongoing interaction was invaluable in building constructive relationships and helping to align the project goals with community needs. 

Each Stakeholder Working Group opened with a review of the decisions made at the last meeting. WCDT set clear deadlines for feedback so that stakeholders understood their responsibilities. When it came time for the City’s public hearing on the land-use re-designation, there was little or no opposition – an unusual situation in a city where redevelopment has often been the source of time-consuming conflict between developers and citizens.

Setting a Collaborative Tone

Next, WCDT held three open house meetings (the last of which was required by The City as part of the redevelopment application process). Breaking with tradition, each open house took place over two or three days, and in multiple locations to suit different stakeholder groups. Participants were offered different opportunities to participate, according to their individual preferences and schedules. WCDT considered it important to change the messaging from ‘the usual ‘Come to this open house to see what we’re doing,’ to ‘Come to this open house to see what we’re all doing.’

At the meetings, WCDT displayed large information boards, and participants placed Post-It Notes directly on these boards to indicate approval, concerns and/or disagreements. The WCDT team would then photograph the boards, compile all the feedback (positive and negative) and report it back to the participants and communities. These notes were also given to the WCDT design team to analyze and consider.

Recognizing that not everyone can attend meetings, and the opinions offered may not represent the views of everyone affected by the development, WCDT also posted an online survey, set up storefront information booths, and wrote letters directly to communities soliciting questions and comments.

This inclusive approach to engagement proved popular with the public. During the approvals process, all five surrounding communities submitted a letter to the City of Calgary expressing their support for the University District Plans – an unusual, perhaps unprecedented, expression of support.

This article, originally published by Smarter Growth, a program of the BUILD Calgary Region initiative, was adapted for SABMag by Maureen Henderson, Director of Marketing and Communications for the West Capus Development Trust.


Viewpoint: Embedding Value