zero carbon zcb

Moving toward a zero carbon economy

Can retrofits alone make Canada’s aging apartment stock sustainable?
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
by Erin Ruddy

In a changing world where “zero carbon” is the ultimate goal in building design, Canada has been an eager adopter of new sustainable technologies and standards. Where energy efficiency used to be the measure of a building’s green standing, today it’s about shifting away from traditional fossil fuel-based infrastructure and embracing high-efficiency systems that rely on low carbon, renewable energy sources.

From commercial to institutional, from office to residential, no building type is out of the realm of zero carbon possibility. According to the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC), zero carbon represents the next frontier for the building sector, allowing owners of all building types to prepare their portfolios for a rising cost on carbon, while ensuring they remain viable in a “fossil fuel-free” future. In the shorter term, zero carbon buildings enjoy significantly lower operating costs without heavy (or any) reliance on purchased electricity.

The CaGBC is confident that the Canadian building industry is ready to lead the global shift to a zero carbon economy. “The Canadian green building sector has always been active in finding ways to limit harmful impacts from the built environment,” says Fin MacDonald, Manager of the CaGBC’s Zero Carbon Building Program. “In the past, many of these efforts were voluntary, but now governments and industry across the country are recognizing the building sector’s potential to fight climate change and are setting more ambitious targets.”

One such target is COP21, a goal that aims to keep global average temperature increases well below 2ºC. Green building organizations around the world have stepped up in support of this objective, pledging to eliminate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the operation of new buildings by 2030. Even more ambitious is their goal to eliminate GHG emissions from all buildings, new and old, by the year 2050.

While new construction projects present the best opportunities for zero carbon performance as they are able to integrate renewable energy generation and new technologies from the onset, where does that leave our cities’ vast supply of aging building stock?

“The truth is, it is more expensive to bring existing buildings to zero carbon standards than new buildings,” warns Albert Bicol, Principal at Albert Bicol Consultancy.  “Having said that, property managers should retrofit their buildings based on current practises even knowing that these buildings will likely be replaced by 2050.”

A daunting prediction for apartment owners to be sure. And while a recent CaBGC report estimates that a combination of deep retrofits, fuel-switching, recommissioning and on-site renewables can help large building owners reduce their emissions by 51 per cent, the question remains: is it worth it?

“My advice for building operators today is to focus on demand reduction,” Bicol says. “Do what you can to improve the building envelope, replace the windows and consider how natural ventilation can be implemented to offset increased usage. As occupants, we need to ask: can our strict comfort requirements be expanded to 18 to 26 degrees? This simple cultural shift would help save significant energy with essentially zero cost.  Building owners can always upgrade lighting and other equipment to draw less energy, recommission building systems and controls. They can also apply renewable energy, which is the main cost barrier.”

Capital restrictions and owners’ need for short-term gains make multi-residential rental buildings the most challenging asset class to update, but such investment can deliver long-term savings with a carbon footprint.

“Tackling this type of challenge requires a financial solution, something that will bridge the capital costs with the long-term savings between two different parties,” Bicol advises. “For instance, continually there are more and more utility companies and thermal asset companies investing in the capital costs up front in order to recuperate that long-term investment. That’s one way to bridge the savings gap.”

Improving energy performance on the road to carbon-free

Andrew Pride, head of Toronto-based Andrew Pride Consulting, is a leading expert on the challenges and opportunities facing organizations today in the areas of environmental sustainability, climate change and energy conservation.  From his hands-on perspective, improving energy performance is something apartment owners shouldn’t overlook.

“The economy in Canada is moving toward a zero carbon benchmark, which for green buildings should mean ultra-high performance from an energy efficiency perspective,” says Pride. “But it is important not to lose sight of improving energy performance prior to seeking an alternative that simply promotes low or no-carbon. For instance, provincial grids in Quebec, B.C., Manitoba and for the most part Ontario, are carbon-free or very low-carbon. Simply switching from gas to electricity won’t work due to the high cost differential between gas and electricity. Furthermore, apartment owners need to take a closer look at non-energy related operating costs. Heat pumps typically require a high maintenance cost over their lifetime compared to central boilers and chillers feeding fancoils. Ultimately, apartment owners should look at the larger picture prior to jumping on a single low-carbon technology solution.”

Pride recommends apartment owners employ a comprehensive natural resource strategy to address their carbon footprint.  A plan that allows for quick payback measures first and deeper savings later should yield a favourable cash flow.

“Using the returns from the quick-payback measures will help fund the slower and deeper solutions,” he says. “The carbon strategy should point to the ultimate solution for the owner, while creating a sharp focus on those areas that need attention. If you know you need to re-clad a building in five years, it may be worthwhile to investigate higher insulation levels, which alone are very costly—however, when combined as an upgrade to existing work, make perfectly good sense. Having an actionable natural resource strategy in place will also allow an apartment owner to apply to the many low-carbon financing solutions that will soon be hitting the market.  Being prepared now will provide early adopter apartment owners a financial advantage.”

To help with that preparation, there is also the matter of the federal government’s plan to develop a model energy code for existing buildings. “Over the next four years, we will see it take shape in many provinces and it will certainly give apartment owners a moment to consider the longevity of their buildings,” Pride says. “At some point the carbon costs and resiliency needs of buildings will render many apartments unviable, as cost to renovate will exceed the cost to re-build.  In my estimation, this is beyond a mid-term vision—this is a very long-term play. Technology and systems are evolving rapidly, so go for any project that pays back in under 12 years and see where technology brings you next decade prior to looking to tear down and rebuild.”

“Passive House” and the future of building innovation

In November 2017, Asia Standard Americas Ltd. and Landa Global Properties announced plans to develop a pair of high-rise residential towers in Vancouver’s west end. If approved, the twin towers will be the largest Passive House towers in the world.

Passive House, a recognized standard for designing low-energy-use, livable buildings, emerged in Germany in the late 1980s and has been embraced by progressive developers ever since. Design elements include: airtight building envelopes, thick insulation, high performance doors and windows, and other sustainable features.

According to the project proposal, the towers will achieve a minimum energy performance in excess of requirements for passive house design. In addition to “cutting-edge” environmental strategies, the 43- to 48-storey towers will feature what the developers describe as a “throwback to the Formalist style” of architecture.

While Bicol acknowledges Vancouver as a progressive, forward-looking city that embraces cutting-edge technology and design, he cautions that inspiration—and solutions— should come from other sources, as well.

“In general, my approach to Net-Zero building design has always been to apply ancient technologies, such as natural ventilation, passive architecture and thermal mass,” Bicol says. “Yes, technology will help in the long run, but I don’t think it is the only solution.  In my opinion, Mother Nature has all the answers we need.”

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