Dedicated to sustainable,
high performance building


By Colin Rohlfing

According to the August 2021 report from Working Group 1 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (WPG-1), ‘it is only possible to avoid warming of 1.5 °C or 2.0 °C with associated catastrophic impacts, if massive and immediate cuts in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are made’ before 2030. In short, we have less than eight years to drastically reduce global carbon emissions and avoid the direst impacts of climate change.

As we know, the built environment plays a significant role in climate change — from how projects are constructed, to how they’re used, to how they are disassembled at end of life. For some time now, the design and construction field has implemented increasingly stringent “high performance” design practices to minimize those impacts and there have been progress. Since the implementation of the AIA 2030 Challenge in 2005, the building sector has reduced GHG emissions by 30% even with a nearly 20% increase in floor area. The industry is on target to achieve a 72% reduction by the year 2030. However, these reductions alone are not enough and we must keep pushing towards faster, net positive benefits for a variety of focus areas such as water, ecology, human health and equity.

As a design industry, we must radically transform the way we approach design; to think beyond the immediate boundaries of our projects to EMBRACE broader interconnected social and ecological systems. We must move beyond the equilibrium of sustainability towards design that has net positive benefits. We need to think about our developments not in the context of doing less harm, but actually doing good.

In other words, our projects need to actively regenerate or contribute positive impacts to the people who use them and the local ecology that surrounds them.


The term “Regenerative Design” describes a process that mimics nature itself by restoring or renewing its own sources of energy and materials. At HDR, we view regenerative design as design that reconnects humans and nature through the continuous renewal of evolving socio-ecological systems. It emulates natural systems for the continuous renewal of societal and ecological functions. A Regenerative Design approach embodies six core principles:

1. Regenerative design achieves net-positive impacts for ecology, health and society. A regenerative project establishes performance metrics in these three areas to remediate the harm that has resulted from decades of conventional development. Because it emulates natural ecological systems, regenerative design incorporates leading edge design for wellness and actively participates in unique, place-driven solutions that address issues of social equity.

2. Regenerative design is flexible, and can be applied to all project types and sizes. Regenerative design does not discriminate, nor does it apply only to certain types of projects. HDR has developed a regenerative design framework that has the ability to accommodate design projects of all sizes, typologies and levels of performance.

The framework moves beyond conventional high performance design to pursue “net positive” impacts for carbon, water, nutrients, air, biodiversity, social and health categories.

3. Regenerative design is evidence based, data driven and measured against multiple metrics. Regenerative project goals are established using a pristine reference site as a baseline. Its associated natural performance metrics exceed code and regulatory standards. These metrics are scientifically defensible and are established using Geographical Information System (GIS) maps; together with data from federal and provincial governments; and research conducted by universities and other recognized social and ecological enterprises. Benchmarking /goal setiing Modeling and verification

4. Regenerative design continuously evolves and renews. Regenerative design includes projection modelling of place-appropriate performance indicators in the following categories:

  • air
  • carbon
  • water
  • nutrients
  • biodiversity
  • health
  • social equity and community wellbeing

These indicators will fluctuate and are influenced by short- and long-term disturbances of socio-ecological systems.


Viewpoint: How hand sketches can speed up the digital design process

Compiled by Jim Taggart, Editor SABMag

This article came out of a standard request we made to Reimagine Architects (REIMAGINE) for construction details that could enhance our coverage of their award winning Red Deer Polytechnic (RDP) Student Residence project. In this digital age, I had not expected to receive hand-drawn sketches, so I asked principal of REIMAGINE Vedran Škopac how and why they were used.

In my experience, it is not so much the choice of procurement model that determines the success of a project, but the relationship between the client, the consultants, the contractor and the sub-contractors who together work towards the common goal. The main selling point for an Integrated Project Delivery (IDP) model, is that collaboration can identify and resolve problems at the design stage, minimizing disruption and delays during construction. With the preconstruction cost to the owner amounting to 10% of total project cost and construction as much as 90%, if there’s no redesign and construction process is lean, it can have a proportionate impact.

Our original intention on the façade of RDP Student Residence project was to pay homage to the adjacent Arts Centre by Arthur Erickson, which is built in red brick with some inspiring patterns and detailing. We contemplated a black brick structure with our own version of patterns, which is now visible in the main floor façade. Mid way through the Validation Phase of the IPD process, it became clear that masonry cladding (because of its weight) had implications beyond the price of the material itself, specifically on the dimensions and cost of the glulam structure.

With the requirement to stay within the agreed budget, we investigated alternative cladding options, including metal panels, none of which were deemed appropriate for the Residence by our IPD Team. At the same time, we were working with the Polytechnic on another project on campus – Alternative Energy Lab – which was part of a larger, 6-Megawatt PV array install to improve overall campus energy performance. Having worked previously with building integrated photovoltaic (BIPV) arrays on exterior walls, we suggested that the two concurrent projects could benefit from each other by using the façade of the Residence as a vertical PV-array by way of integrating PVs into the envelope in lieu of metal cladding and, coincidentally, avoiding the unnecessary cost of cladding. RDP Residence is now fully PV-clad on all three sides exposed to sun, east, west and south, in all floors above the ground floor. Our estimates were that the installed 161-kiloWatt PV array is offsetting over 40% of overall building energy consumption.

At the point of deciding to integrate PV modules into the envelope, we had already laid out the building and developed the BIM model. The structural grid was optimized for the dimensions of student rooms, more specifically to their typical width, which was studied for months and tested in a full-scale mock-up built on campus and reviewed many times by students and faculty staff. Due to the fixed dimensions of a standard PV module, the fenestration became governed by the PV grid, which was in a different logic from the structural grid.

Our team studied the implications of the overlap between the two grids and engaged our IPD partner that was in-charge of the millwork production and install to figure out the optimal student room layout which will maximise student ergonomics and space efficiency, while the window is in a slightly different location in each room. Amazingly enough, it turned out that student rooms benefited from this unexpected condition by increasing the variety of student room types without making any design modifications, and simply by having a different interaction between the bed, the window bench, the work desk, and the window.

While the sophistication of a BIM model makes it an invaluable tool, it has its limitations. The process of producing building details in CAD from a BIM model can be cumbersome, even counterproductive. When you cut, for example, a section at a particular point in the building, the initial drawing contains a lot of extraneous elements, such as material textures and non-essential lines that an architect must analyze and edit out to ensure the drawing conveys the required information clearly and concisely. This can be a long, tedious, reductive and somewhat unreliable process, that can detach the individual from the naturally creative process of architectural detailing.

Before producing building details, we explored the critical aspects of thermal resistance, moisture and vapour control. To verify with our own team what the detailing needs to achieve, we sketched all the details by hand, in scale and in different colours denoting structure from thermal treatment, from vapour treatment and from finish materials. Unlike many other projects, RDP Residence was under tight time constraints, so we decided to lean up our own process by eliminating one entire  step in our production of building details – the CAD.

We haven’t had a single Request For Information (RFI) and neither had we to modify any of the hand-drawn details. The  building was constructed exactly as intended. 

The lessons here are perhaps less about the choice of the project delivery method, and more about the relationship between the various members of the project team. Team culture is always the key, because it underpins mutual trust and respect; as well as adaptability and flexibility and it can produce creative and innovative solutions to unanticipated challenges. Lastly, it should be remembered that the tools we use to design buildings are exactly that – tools; and understanding the value and limitations of each in a given situation can also contribute to the success of a project.

Viewpoint: Natural Resilience

Using Nature-based Solutions to Enhance Coastal Protection

By Joanna Eyquem

Coastal flooding and erosion are a direct threat to the health and safety of people living in coastal communities, and cause damage to local infrastructure and property. The majority of Canada’s coastal population is located along the East (Atlantic) and West (Pacific) coastlines, where sea levels are rising due to irreversible climate change.

Action is required NOW to manage the growing risks to coastal communities. A recent report from the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre  describes how Canada can scale-up the use of nature-based solutions, in tandem with ‘grey’ infrastructure, to protect communities along the East and West coastlines. Importantly, action must consider natural processes along the coast to a greater extent than has occurred to date. Reduction of flooding and erosion at one site, if not carefully designed, can cause instability further along the coast and degradation of coastal ecosystems on which communities depend.

Canada does not yet have a strategic planning framework or standard classification of approaches for coastal risk management. Coastal risk management responses identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) include Protection, Accommodation, Retreat and Avoidance, as well as non-intervention.

A suite of options should be appraised to select appropriate approaches along Canada’s east and west coasts. Coastal protection measures can be divided into two key categories:

• Grey Infrastructure: hard, engineered coastal protection measures, and; Nature-Based Solutions: measures that depend on, or mimic, natural systems to manage flood and erosion risk, Nature-based solutions are further subdivided into those that are:

  • Predominantly sediment-based, such as adding sediment or sand to beaches (a process known as beach nourishment)
  • Predominantly vegetation-based, such as saltmarsh or coastal wetland restoration.
  • Nature-based solutions, in particular, have a vital role to play in managing coastal flood and erosion risk in Canada. International experience and guidance demonstrate that these measures not only provide protection against coastal flooding and erosion, they also deliver multiple benefits, including improved biodiversity, carbon sequestration and storage, enhanced wellbeing and opportunities for recreational activities.

Three courses of action are recommended to scale-up the use of nature-based solutions for coastal protection in Canada:

• Develop national standards to support consistent evaluation of the benefits of nature-based solutions when comparing infrastructure options, including for coastal protection. This should include minimum requirements, regional-specific standards, engagement with Indigenous people and recommended methodologies for reflecting the financial value of benefits provided by nature-based solutions.

• Develop national monitoring standards for coastal protection measures, focused on nature-based solutions. This should include combining Natural and Grey Infrastructure to Protect Canada’s coastal communities; consideration of minimum monitoring requirements, as well as how monitoring should be tailored to document performance against project-specific objectives (funding for long-term monitoring and engagement with Indigenous people could be considered as minimum monitoring requirements).

• Build capacity to finance and deliver nature-based solutions by engaging the private sector. Public private partnerships can potentially assist in financing, delivering, monitoring, and maintaining nature-based solutions. The insurance industry can also assist in managing construction risks and offering innovative insurance products that provide funds to restore natural features protecting the coastline, should they be damaged during extreme events.

The outcomes of these actions will help governments and other organizations make robust management decisions regarding coastal flooding and erosion along Canada’s  coastlines.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in Canada, and globally, in preparing for climate change and sea-level rise along the coast, is a limited sense of urgency to act. For around the past 6,000 years, global sea-level has remained relatively steady.

This makes the recent, comparably rapid rise in sea-level caused by human-induced climate change less easy to grasp. Decision makers in Canada must realize, sooner rather than later, that the sea level of the past will not be the sea level of the future, and prepare coastal communities accordingly.

Joanna Eyquem P.Geo. ENV SP. CWEM. CEnv., is Managing Director, Climate-Resilient Infrastructure at the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation, Faculty of Environment, University of Waterlo.



Exploring new architectural innovations to turn wasted energy into reusable electricity

By: Zenon Radewych, Principal, WZMH Architects

The earth is heating up at an unprecedented rate – in fact, according to NASA, 2016 and 2020 are the warmest years on record to date. That’s why now, more than ever, is the time to be creative and look for opportunities to reduce greenhouse gasses. One of these creative opportunities lies in turning the ‘wasted’ energy in our buildings into reusable electricity.

It’s no secret that many of the buildings we live, work, and play in are major polluters. Buildings and their associated construction make up 36 percent of global energy use, and 39 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually (The United Nations Environment Program). Here in Canada, our buildings account for nearly one-quarter of our GHG emissions (Environment and Climate Change Canada).

But buildings, largely due to the volume of human and machine activity that goes on within them, also represent a unique domain for energy harvesting from non-traditional sources. At the highest level, we consider three main energy resources in our buildings: people, environmental, and recyclable energy. The environment can of course provide wind, solar and geothermal energy. People bring kinetic and thermal energy, and recyclable sources include artificial lighting, waste heat, machinery vibrations, elevator regeneration, among others.  

Our buildings also contain a vast number of components and systems that are DC (low-voltage) based. For example, most of our modern electronics (including computers, phones, lighting and fans) are inherently DC powered and most of the lights in buildings are LED (low-voltage).

Coincidentally, many components of a renewable energy system (such as batteries and solar PV) are also DC-based. But traditionally, we have used the AC grid in our buildings to integrate these DC sources and power DC loads. This results in conversion losses of approximately 10-20% – and can lead to a variety of other complications at the energy grid level. 

Exploring the concept of a DC-Microgrid community

At WZMH Architects, we believe that we need to be investing the time, funding and talent to discover new insights about how we design buildings that drive towards net-zero energy use and are carbon neutral. One of our first initiatives included research into off-site construction (prefabrication and modular) and how to combine multiple building systems into one component thereby reducing materials, waste and expediting construction installation.

The result from this research was our invention of the Intelligent Structural Panel (ISP) – a modular structural floor slab that includes a DC (low-voltage) highway imbedded in the thickness of the panel. Since the development of the ISP, WZMH Architects formally launched our Innovation Lab several years ago.

One of our latest studies, conducted in partnership with Ryerson University, includes the use of a community-based DC microgrid, where multiple buildings are all connected through the grid – including residential, commercial (office), retail, data centres, etc. By combining different types of buildings into the DC microgrid community, there are many benefits from the opportunities that relate to recycled energy, or harnessing energy losses.

So, what exactly is a microgrid? A microgrid can be broadly defined as a localized network of electric loads and power sources, with the ability to function independently or in conjunction with a larger grid system. In our context, a DC microgrid represents an alternative power system in a building, where we can power our equipment with various ‘Green Energy Producers’ (GEP), including solar, wind, and even innovative sources like exercise bikes, elevators and use of thermoelectric generators. 


Interview with Nicholas Gefucia, Vice President, EllisDon Community Builders

EllisDon Community Builders (EDCB), a new group within EllisDon launched in February, has the goal of helping to deliver affordable and supportive housing.

1. Does EDCB work with certain types of organizations to deliver the housing?  

EDCB will work with those who wish to deliver quality sustainable affordable housing in their community. We will engage with non-profit organizations, municipalities or private developers, as well as higher levels of government who wish to address the affordable housing challenge with a strategic focus. Our model is geared to support viable projects with optimal affordability and a scalable offering that begins at the earliest stages of a project with a comprehensive set of services that supports affordable housing in all respects.

2. What would be EDCB’s role?  

EDCB’s core offering, as a development consultant in the early stages, is development management services that utilizes the expertise of every facet of EllisDon, one of the largest and most reputable builders in Canada. This involves development and financial advisory services which are performed leveraging everything that a world-leading construction services company has to offer. We will then facilitate the full cradle-to-grave development and construction solutions that EllisDon can provide.

3. Would EDCB operate in every part of Canada, or will it target specific regions?

EDCB’s reach is Canada-wide and tall. EllisDon has area offices in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Toronto, London and Halifax, with the unique capacity to serve critical needs in the far north.

Our affordable housing base design, which was developed with a view to serving affordable housing needs across Canada, is intended to be implemented across the country. We expect that our approach will benefit from our experiences gained through building across Canada and will inform the best affordable housing solutions on a community-to-community basis.

4. Will EDCB focus mainly on multi-unit housing, and what level

of energy performance and indoor environmental quality will it have?

As referenced above, EDCB has developed an affordable housing base design that not only accelerates the design development process on a project-by-project basis but also supports our clients’ direction in achieving environmental efficiency standards, including CMHC requirements, Passive House and Net Zero Carbon. We are able to take on larger builds given our capacity and expertise, while staying committed to our clients’ affordable housing mandates.

5. Why did EllisDon launch EDCB?

Every Canadian is aware of our national housing challenges and far too many are suffering because of it. EllisDon has recognized that it is uniquely positioned to address this need, particularly because of our track record of developing critical assets with social outcomes. It’s what we do best. Partnering with like-minded NPOs, municipalities and developers to serve communities with assets that communities can be proud of is the core function of EDCB, and that is why we have put this team together. Having a team of dedicated professionals with the resources of one of Canada’s top builders, we can lead an initiative with significant national impact. 


Viewpoint: Building Back Better

By Steven Paynter

A matter of weeks ago, Justin Trudeau made his Speech from the Throne to open the second session of Canada’s 43rd parliament. In a modern era unlike any other, as the second wave of COVID-19 begins to grip the nation and we eagerly await further economic stimulus, the Prime Minister vowed that Canada would emerge on the other side of the pandemic and “Build Back Better”.

While normally, these speeches have little impact on the design profession, this year was different. Having not had the time to watch it live, I have to admit that the first story I read was about how angry Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was. “Not a single word in the speech discussed the oil industry,” he raged, insisting that it was full of “kooky” objectives! Suddenly, I was interested.

So, what were these “kooky” plans? The main plank of the “build back better recovery” involves a huge injection of cash and loans for sustainable infrastructure projects such as green transit and clean energy, but the one that really piqued my interest, and I’m sure caught the attention of many others in the design professions, was the confirmation of $2 billion from the  Infrastructure Bank of Canada to pay for  sustainable upgrades to existing buildings.

At first, this sounded like an amazing opportunity to finally get some projects moving, as the funding could easily unlock repositioning deals for those projects that just didn’t quite make economic sense to transform in the wake of COVID-19.

After a couple of days of reflecting on it, and after many discussions with our clients, I started to feel disappointed by the idea. It looks like the majority of this money will disappear into mechanical rooms over the next five years, and while we may feel the benefit eventually, it will be, at best, existential for most people.

It turns out $2 billion is spread across the country. It’s just a little over $10 million per city in Canada, with maybe each town seeing upgrades to a few minor projects1. This also translates to roughly $3,500 of projected fee per registered architect meaning it’ll have almost no impact on the industry.

How will this stimulus translate into creating a more sustainable built environment? Maybe the money truly will go into mechanical upgrades, or maybe we’ll see the occasional facade upgrade if we’re lucky. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

What if the money, which I know is enough to tip some projects over the line and into construction, was tied to a bigger, even more sustainable cause? What if we incorporated that funding not only to the performance of the building, but also to its wider socio-economic impact? What if we tied it to creating better neighbourhoods, and design something that could truly be a catalyst for wider change.

It’s a simple idea. If developers want part of the $2 billion pot, then they have to invest double that into other building upgrades that serve the local population. It’s a win/win because there are literally hundreds of landlords and developers out there itching to do this. I’ve spoken to many of them over the course of writing this, and they all agreed that taking the cash sink that is MEP upgrades off their plate would definitely help get things moving.

What would this mean in practice? Well it could mean that a struggling local mall becomes a new beacon for sustainable repositioning with physical changes that improve the quality of the experience there. This is important because we need those obvious changes, we need things to be clear to us, so they can become inspirational and drive change.

Mechanical room upgrades aren’t going to inspire someone to change their behaviour but adding a new use to a failing piece of real estate can.

Converting empty office space for  residential use, refitting suffering retail to be more walkable, or updating lacklustre ground floors to be more engaging and public-facing spaces – all of this will help create all important walkable cities, reduce commutes and get people more engaged with their communities.

We know that these interventions are the ones that will have the biggest impact on mitigating the effects of climate change. If we can encourage people to be inspired to shop locally, walk to work, create more diverse neighbourhoods, get cars off the streets, and design something that is bigger than the narrowly focused  propositions of simply transforming mechanical systems, we can make a visible and lasting change that will create a positive impact on our cities and the planet alike.

Nor do I believe this point of view is simply theoretical. In a recent study of GDP for several cities, we noticed a clear correlation between cities like Detroit after the 2008 recession and cities like Calgary now.

After taking a massive economic hit, Detroit is starting to thrive once again. With a revival of the downtown core led by repositioning, it is  now attracting major investment from the likes of Bedrock and Related. They are creating a walkable downtown with great transit, including streetcars, and amazing mixed-use districts.

But Detroit had to bottom out, going bankrupt as a city in 2013, before it started to see new investment. Now is the chance for our Canadian cities to invest and avoid that ignominious fate!

As an example, according to Avison Young, Calgary is facing a 26% vacancy rate in its corporate workplace sector with nearly a dozen downtown buildings sitting almost completely empty. For comparison, Colliers shows that Detroit only hit 17.6% in 2013. It’s clear that now is the time to use this Federal investment to jump straight to the recovery phase in our downtown districts.  We know what the recovery looks like in terms of communities and real estate, so let’s go straight there, before it gets worse and we see the industrial pollution that became ubiquitous with Detroit.

Of course, this means more work for architects, but more importantly it will mean better cities. This is the real chance to “Build Back Better”. As much as I know one article won’t change government policy, I hope it will change the minds of a few designers, engineers or landlords. 

I for one, have already been encouraging clients to apply for this funding to kick start a project, not expecting it to be a project unto itself –  and it is working.

The “determined optimism” that Gensler Chairman Joe Brancato has spoken of, is making people think bigger, and hopefully that will allow us to look back to the pandemic from the future, maybe in a net zero 2050, and say that this year really was a turning point.

Maybe we will be able to walk our communities and say, “that building was repositioned in 2021 and it really changed our city”. Because if we don’t focus on this, then we will regret it. All we will have is some fancy new equipment in our mechanical rooms and, yes, we’ll have taken a small step towards tackling climate change, but we won’t take the leap we need.

Steven Paynter, OAA, ARB, is a Principal with Gensler Toronto.


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.