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Are Mainstream Low Energy Designs in the Horizon?

posted Feb 15, 2016, 5:51 AM by   [ updated Feb 15, 2016, 6:40 AM ]

The 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference known as COP 21 that ended on December 12 reached its objective of a global agreement to reduce GHG emissions. It was hailed as a success even though it only becomes legally binding once it is signed by the 55-55 (the 55 nations that account for 55% of total GHG emissions).

Critically though, the agreement calls for aggressively tackling GHG reductions immediately in order to reach Net Zero emissions in a couple of decades. Some readers will notice that this is more or less in line with the goals from ASHRAE, the 2030 Challenge and the EPBD from the European Union, although the EPBD target for reaching Net Zero is 2020.

The year 2015 was confirmed to be the warmest on record and 2016 is forecast to be warmer with an average global temperature of about 1°C higher than the average thanks to El Niῆo.(1) Unbelievably warm fall and early winter weather was recorded here in Ottawa. In fact, December had the warmest weather since record keeping began. To me, all this signifies that the urgency for an immediate reduction in GHG emissions is warranted.

So the big question is whether the above commitments and calls for immediate aggressive reductions will change the way we build buildings. I am hoping that it will, but unfortunately, I still see a reluctance from the industry to turn design and construction on its head, away from “Value Engineering”. We continue running in circles because I still hear the same things including:
  • Developers who still want to build ‘em cheap, but still meet SB-10 (the Energy Supplement of the Ontario Building code). It seems to matter little how many articles are written on the true costs of high performance buildings that point to small or no incremental costs thanks to the concept of tunneling-through-the-cost-barrier.
  • Project managers of institutional buildings who want to undertake a midlife refit of a building using tried and true technology with minimal impact to the overall carbon footprint of the building. They fail to understand that the renovated building is going to operate for another 20 or 30 years with essentially the same carbon footprint, a lost opportunity. This is not just me saying it. Back in 2009, ASHRAE president elect, Gordon Holmes said that energy efficiency in existing buildings is our greatest opportunity because less than 5% of construction projects are new construction, while the rest are existing buildings.(2) Buildings built between 1960 to 1980 account for the largest portion of the built environment and many of them need to undergo a mid-life refit.

  • Lack of knowledge that takes many forms from understanding the effective thermal performance of spandrel panels to making ludicrous statements like DV and UFAD systems provide very poor IAQ because the registers/diffusers are on the floor or wall and bring up dirt into the breathing zone. So new designs continue to be mostly overhead mixing systems, even though DV + Radiant Cooling are pretty well standard practice in some parts of the world such as the EU and most of our houses use floor delivery system.  

The weather is telling us that it is time to wake up. In saying this, I am also reminded of what Jared Diamond said about failed civilizations in his 2005 book Collapse:  “Failure of societies and civilizations has happened repeatedly because of the baffling phenomenon of failures of group decision-making and idleness in the face of disaster.” (3) 

 I really hope that the industry’s commitment to widespread design and construction of Low Energy Buildings is not too far away.

(2) Holmes, G. “Sustaining Our Future by Rebuilding Our Past”. ASHRAE Journal. August 2009.
(3) Diamond J. “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” Page 420, Chapter 13.