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The Right Stuff to Achieve Truly Improved Building Energy Performance

posted Jul 28, 2019, 12:58 PM by todesco@sympatico.ca   [ updated Jul 29, 2019, 6:11 AM ]
On Saturday July 20, I was having breakfast in the backyard, reading the newspaper. It was still early enough that the temperature was pleasant and the air fresh, unlike the furnace-like conditions that were expected later that afternoon.

The newspaper had quite a few articles on the Apollo 11 mission in commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Moon Landing. One, written by Basil Hero, titled “Searching for the Right Stuff” struck a chord. Hero stated that one of the elements of “the right stuff” is the pursuit of the “common good”, which is rooted in ancient Greece where their citizens believed not in living just for themselves, but for the community. Towards the end of the article he stated that: 

If there is any lesson learned on this 50th anniversary of the moon landing, it should be 
that humans find the right stuff to pursue the  common good of Planet Earth

To me this is powerful stuff. It is readily applicable to the design of low energy buildings and the urgency, Real Urgency to ensure that new and renovated buildings exhibit minimum energy use and GHG emissions in order to combat Climate Change. 

Despite the increasing rhetoric on net zero and carbon neutral construction and the fact that we have been at it for some 25+ years since the days of the Savings-by-Design program from Ontario Hydro back in the 1990s, our track record reducing building energy use, especially in North America, is mediocre. Don’t take it from me. Go and download the 2017 RealPac report (1). It’s a large database of Canadian office buildings with a sample size of ~430 buildings, encompassing some 129 million ft². You will see that buildings constructed after 2000 show a slight improvement of only 22% from the average of 32 ekWh/ft².yr down to about 25 ekWh/ft².yr (1,240 to 970 MJ/m².yr). This is consistent with what Joe Lstiburek stated in his 2008 article “Prioritizing Green – It’s the Energy Stupid” (2),(3). He reported on a 2008 study that compared the energy performance of sustainable buildings against  conventional construction. The study, conducted by the New Buildings Institute (NBI) found that on average, the sustainable buildings were approximately 15% better than conventional construction.
  
So what‘s going on? We keep building them the same. First due to financial barriers in terms of consultant fees, as well as, construction costs. The majority of consultants will go for the tried and true, which can be achieved with minimal effort. Whereas a new design away from conventional VAV and our North American fixation with all-air, overhead delivery systems would require more effort, even though it’s debatable whether more effort is required to design say, a DOAS+chilled beams, but I digress. Higher construction costs come into play when contractors will see a higher level of risk to install something that is not familiar to them and then, there is the common practice of slapping a premium on high performance construction. 

Risk aversion towards new technology is another impediment that comes into play. Critics will say though that the industry is not averse to embracing new technology as VRF technology is gaining market share. But then we are doing nothing to reduce the loads; to create climate adaptable, well insulated buildings with reasonable amounts of glazing. 

So, what’s being built is the same high rise office building or condo with an all-glass envelope that requires large amounts of heating and cooling, served by more modern technology such as VRF or water loop heat pumps. The result, as attested by the RealPac database and Joe Lstiburek, is buildings that are only marginally more efficient than their 1980 or 1990 counterparts. 

If we want to make a difference though, we ought to be designing and constructing buildings that, from the get-go, have a minimal need for heating and cooling, which will allow drastically downsized HVAC systems; an absolute prerequisite towards net zero. 

In his article, Hero also stated that: 

We once did the impossible. We can again.

It’s time to have the courage to do the impossible in the design and construction of buildings. Let’s pursue The Right Stuff towards the common good of Planet Earth.

1. https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.realpac.ca/resource/resmgr/industry-sustainability-energy/2017_Energy_Benchmarking_Rep.pdf2.
2. Lstiburek, J. Building Science Insights “BSI-007: Prioritizing Green – It’s the Energy Stupid”. 10/28/08. Accessed at www.buildingscience.com .
3. Lstiburek, J. 2008. “Why Green Can be Wash” ASHRAE Journal. Atlanta, Georgia: ASHRAE. Vol. 50, No. 11, November, pp. 28-36.

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