CRE fosters all-in approach to decarbonization

CRE fosters all-in approach to decarbonization

Frontline building managers and operators assigned key facilitation roles
Friday, January 26, 2024
By Barbara Carss

Daunting targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the buildings sector are spurring an all-in approach to decarbonization that assigns roles to finance, engineering, management and operations teams. Industry associations and a range of stakeholders within commercial real estate companies, their investor groups and service providers are likewise working together to develop resources and strengthen learning networks.

This winter brings the rollout of a series of free training courses from the Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC), offered with the endorsement of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Canada, the Real Property Association of Canada (REALPAC), the Canadian Construction Association (CCA), the Climate Risk Institute (CRI) and the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC). An overview of key low-carbon concepts will be available in either online modules or in-person sessions focusing on: ESG; the integrated design process; operational carbon; embodied carbon; and zero carbon transition planning. Courses tailored to more specific concerns and skills for building owners and real estate professionals, building operators and construction professionals will also be offered.

“Many of our member organizations have publicly announced their commitment to reach net zero or near-net-zero. The challenge is how to make it happen,” Bala Gnanam, BOMA Canada’s vice president, sustainability, advocacy and stakeholder relations, observed during a recent webinar to introduce the training courses and discuss decarbonization strategies. “We need to equip building operators and managers with the right set of skills to actively contribute to and support properties to enable this transition.”

In that quest, Paolo Cordovado is helping to set the bar for informed and engaged frontline staff. As a senior building operator, he could be characterized as a technology whisperer — responsible for overseeing the functioning of a suite of equipment and systems that typically produce the largest share of GHG emissions, but are also central to optimizing performance, saving energy and curbing peak demand.

He joined the conversation to share a hands-on perspective on how operators can safeguard and facilitate emissions reductions. That includes: ensuring that equipment, controls and systems are performing as intended; adjusting set-points and run-times to find incremental energy savings and emissions reductions; and generating cost savings that can be redeployed to required capital projects.

“A minute a day, times a week, times a month, times a year, times the life of the building can be a lot of accumulated of savings,” Cordovado reflected. “If you can tweak a little bit, minute-by-minute, to get up to an overall 30 minutes a day of savings, that will be a full week over the course of a year that you’ve taken off.”

“We don’t want to forget that the cheapest unit of energy is the one we don’t use, or lose sight that efficiency is really the best solution to decarbonization,” concurred Daniel Gosselin, senior director of professional services with the facilities management and sustainability services firm, BGIS.

Pulling out to the big picture, he noted that the initial steps of a decarbonization strategy are generally sequential — committing to action, identifying major GHG sources within the portfolio, determining required mitigating measures and integrating them into the capital plan — but implementation is a more dynamic process with multiple simultaneous actions requiring many different types of skills.

Enabling technology has arrived, but implementation practicalities still evolving

While HVAC overhauls, building envelope upgrades and on-site renewable energy are likely to yield the most significant emissions reductions, it’s seldom economically feasible to undertake them collectively in one deep retrofit. More often, progress comes incrementally, project-by-project, as major systems reach end-of-life and need to be replaced. That’s the case in QuadReal Property Group’s portfolio as the company pursues a 90 per cent reduction in GHG emissions by 2050, with intentions to hit the 50 per cent milestone by 2030.

“We’re looking at life spans of the units that are already in place in our existing buildings and getting a picture of what makes the most sense from our financial perspective,” said Nisha Agrawal, QuadReal’s director of sustainability. “We are a pension-backed organization so we have a fiduciary duty to do things very responsibly and think closely about how each sustainability piece aligns with the financial aspect.”

A focus on energy efficiency and operational performance is important, both before new low-carbon technology is in place and afterwards to ensure maximum return on the capital investment. As well, ongoing outreach to all QuadReal departments provides input for decision-making.

“There are a lot of experts out there across the organization so we’ve opened the door for it to be a very two-way communication process between us and the operations teams, the asset management team and anyone else who is affected (by the emissions reduction target),” Agrawal advised. “We have an ESG team so we work together to come up with strategies, programs and resources, and, at the end of the day, it’s the property teams that are on-site delivering.”

Although low-carbon technologies will undoubtedly continue to evolve, Gosselin stresses that the basics for achieving net-zero emissions in buildings have already been invented. From here, it’s a matter of refining the formulas to make it economically and practically feasible.

“Especially on the engineering side, we often do not work closely enough with our operations teams. There’s a lot of work we could be doing,” Gosselin acknowledged. “We’re pivoting toward operational excellence — defining operational excellence and then working with our operations teams to get there. We want to combine all these technologies that are available with really high-end sequences of operation so things are really working. Every minute of improvement counts.”

From operators’ perspective, Cordovado foresees that rising demand for skills combined with professional development opportunities, like the CAGBC low-carbon training courses or the Building Operations Designation (BOD) program, could lead to further career satisfaction and advancement. That’s also happening as frontline staff emerge as the go-to source to help property managers field tenants’ demands for ESG information.

“I think that has opened up property managers’ eyes and changed the way they communicate with building operators,” Cordovado suggested. “I think it’s the perfect time for building operators to prove themselves.”

Gnanam reiterates that the rewards go both ways.

“We need to factor the value of training into our ROI calculations. We talk about the cost of the equipment; we talk about the returns in terms of energy savings or shielding from future cost of energy, but we’re not considering the potential costs in the absence of training,” he asserted. “We need to acknowledge that the building managers and operators are making the difference when it comes to actually delivering.”

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