Room needed atop energy performance scale

Federal-provincial consultation explores standardized metric to denote superior design
Tuesday, May 24, 2016
By Barbara Carss

As the energy performance of Canada’s building stock steadily improves, standard setters are happily seeking more room to manoeuvre at the top of the scale. An in-progress consultation on a selection of approaches for evaluating design attributes is meant to support the green building sector’s pursuit of net-zero energy outcomes and provide a standardized metric that would be useful for the real estate market.

Natural Resources Canada’s (NRCan) Office of Energy Efficiency is the lead agency in a federal-provincial effort to explore practical, cost-effective ways to assess and accurately compare building designs that result in ultra-high energy performance, and to gather views from potential adopters of the metric. A discussion paper was released earlier this year.

“The National Energy Code for Buildings is important because it establishes the floor, or the minimum level of acceptability, but it’s also valuable to have a pull at the top,” observes Ian Meredith, a senior program development officer with NRCan’s Buildings Division. “The concept of the metric is that it would give the market a useful way to identify what is at the top.”

Other environmental and energy standards and certifications — LEED, Living Building Challenge, Passive House — cover some or much of the same ground, but the proposed metric is envisioned as a more scoped tool for commercial and institutional building design “on the path towards near- or net-zero energy”. Building designs would achieve scores through a standardized approach to energy modelling, giving the industry a consistent rating to denote and compare results. This could also build professional capacity and industry confidence in energy modelling services.

Strategists contemplating Canada’s commitment to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) underscore that energy efficiency in the buildings sector will be critical to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to the pledged 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. New construction is well placed to deliver improved efficiency with fewer complications and at lower cost than retrofits to existing stock, and to draw on lessons already learned to target even higher performance.

“New building designs present a unique opportunity to demonstrate leadership,” the discussion paper states. “The promotion of leading-edge designs would  therefore provide a suitable market ‘pull’ to complement the ‘push’ provided by increasingly stringent energy building codes.”

Market and policy applications

“We want to stress the metric has to be useful,” reiterates Marie Lyne Tremblay, a  deputy director with NRCan and chair of the technical steering committee providing input on the initiative. “We’re looking for a solution that is adaptable to the Canadian market and that people will be happy to use.”

The steering committee includes representatives from the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) of Canada, the Canada Green Building Council, provincial electricity administrators and federal, provincial and municipal government. A range of stakeholders — including design and construction professionals, energy management specialists, industry associations, utilities and building officials — have been asked to comment on the proposed metrics and/or add their own suggestions.

“The feedback I’m getting from some of our members is that it should be as simple as possible to understand, and it should be aligned with metrics in the United States because so many of our members are active in both countries,” reports John Smiciklas, BOMA Canada‘s director of energy and environment.

Beyond meeting the real estate industry’s needs, government officials see a future role for the metric in informing and ensuring compliance with public policy. Notably, ongoing federal and provincial investment in GHG emissions reduction and resiliency to climate change will require ways to track and verify progress and results.

“The first benefit of the consultation is that people will talk about it,” Tremblay says. “It becomes a communication tool and it becomes a learning tool.”

Measurement approaches

The discussion paper identifies medium-sized office buildings and elementary schools as commercial and institutional archetypes, and uses data from NRCan’s design validation program, which reviewed the energy modelling of proposed new buildings from 2007-2011, to test and analyze strengths and weaknesses of the measurement approaches under consideration.

Metrics more commonly used to benchmark existing buildings, such as climate-adjusted energy-use intensity and ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager, were found to lack precision. “If you applied the ENERGY STAR scale to the kind of buildings we’d be looking at recognizing, they’d all be clustered in the 98th and 99th percentile and it wouldn’t provide much distinction,” Meredith notes.

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Asset Score approach was appraised positively for design-based evaluation of a building’s envelope, mechanical and electrical systems, but the scoring system was faulted as too simplistic to differentiate technically sophisticated high-performance designs. Other proposed metrics start from a more rigorous baseline for modelling energy performance — testing building design against a high-performance reference and/or devising a new Zero Energy Rating (ZER) to peg building design in relation to the theoretically best achievable results.

Whatever the chosen energy performance scale, it is meant to reflect guiding criteria for clarity, credibility, transparency, cost-effectiveness and easy deployment in public awareness and education programs. As with the codes that stipulate minimum performance, the definition of ultra-high performance is also expected to evolve and pull pacesetters further upwards.

“This is likely a floor,” Tremblay projects.

From a property management perspective, Smiciklas suggests monitoring and verification of actual built outcomes should factor into future iterations of the metric.

“Buildings are designed for a certain energy performance, the question is: what if they don’t deliver or maintain that energy performance?” he says. “As a next step, we need feedback to determine whether the approach used for design is working.”

Ian Meredith will present an overview of the consultation on the high-performance design metric at the Canada Green Building Council’s upcoming national conference in Toronto.

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