Future Proofing / by Sustainable

How do future-proof buildings and communities prepare us for a world of exponential change?

By Yasmin Glanville

The complexity, reach, and negative effects of natural and human-caused disruptions have reached an all-time high. With no quick way to predict or avoid such problems, the best solution for every community is to join forces and work together to future-proof our world. This involves increasing resilience, which is an adaptive state of readiness that provides the ability to bounce back from disruptions by developing systems to respond to reasonably foreseeable events. For a community, building, or operation to be resilient, it must first be sustainable—it must be capable of maintaining a minimally-functional operating state.

Too much CO2 in the wrong place

The biggest threat to our climate, and leading source of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions today, is carbon. Burning fossil fuels raises carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere and increases the atmospheric temperature of the earth, which can lead to more extreme weather events.

A number of extreme weather events have occurred in Canada over the last few years, including the wildfires that occurred in Fort McMurray in 2016, the flooding in Toronto and Calgary in 2013, and heatwave-related deaths that occurred in Montreal in 2018. While these individual extreme weather events cannot directly be linked to climate change, it is likely to increase the frequency and severity of these types of events.

The United Nations warns we now only have 11 years to radically reduce GHG emissions in order to cut the risk of extreme heat, drought, floods, and poverty for hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Thus, it is critical that we undertake immediate action to reduce carbon emissions wherever we can.

As this crisis unfolds, one of our first priorities should be to reform urban infrastructure and buildings—today’s leading source of GHG emissions. Our built environment (buildings and infrastructure) accounts for at least 40 per cent of human-made carbon emissions. This includes all of the materials and energy used in the construction (the embodied carbon) and over the life-span (the operational carbon) of the built environment.

“Buildings represent one of the big keys to future-proofing cities and supporting exponential change and disruption,” says Russell Richman, associate chair of graduate studies in building science at Ryerson University.

Recognizing that an increase in carbon emissions that can lead to global warming, a growing number of Canadian leaders in business, academia, and government are working to accelerate the transition to future-proofing approaches in design, construction, and management of buildings and communities.

At Sustainable, an award-winning building science-led architecture firm founded by principal architect Paul Dowsett, every new building and community design project aims to minimize embodied and operational carbon emissions through design. Building science is the key differentiator.

Why building-science-led design?

Kathleen Narbonne, building scientist at Sustainable defines building science as: “The study of energy flows through buildings and the material components used in construction. At Sustainable, we use building science to influence design in an effort to improve occupant health and comfort, energy-efficiency, durability, sustainability, and overall resilience to extreme events.”

Even though it has been recognized since the 1950s, building science has evolved relatively slowly. “Building science is gaining global recognition,” says Richman. “As an integral component for predicting and optimizing the performance, sustainability, and resilience of buildings, building science will guide the design of new techniques and technologies. Building science has been successfully used in countless projects to create low energy/low carbon building standards that routinely reduce energy use and carbon emissions by 75 per cent to 90 per cent.”

“In order to get everyone on board with our building science-led approach to design, construction, and operation,” says Dowsett. “We must work together.”

Collaboration is the key

“Buildings and cities need to be viewed as interconnected systems instead of as isolated parts,” says Dowsett. He believes that a whole-systems, multi-disciplinary approach is required to reduce our dependence on carbon-based materials and fossil fuels in the design, construction, and operation of buildings and cities. “The good news,” he adds, “is that designing systems for resilience doesn’t need to cost any more than building for obsolescence.”

Narbonne notes another advantage of collaboration: it enhances commitment. “By engaging in the project from early in the design process, stakeholders are part of the decision-making process and are more interested in pursuing sustainable measures.”

Planning resilience into design

The next sustainability imperative is to incorporate resilience planning into the design of buildings and communities. According to Alec Hay, a risk, resilience, and security expert with the consulting firm Southern Harbour, we need to implement resilient building practices and processes to reduce damage from extreme weather events.

The diagnosis sounds alarming: we have to change the way we design and interact with buildings and cities as living systems.

Some risks are easy to manage like installing a backup electrical supply in case of a power outage or moving a business out of a floodplain. But in a disaster, can employees still get to work? What if they get stranded at work, and are unable to get home? Such ancillary concerns can account for half of the risks inherent in living in certain areas. Understanding all of our inherent risks allows us to design for sustainability and resilience, with the assurance (as with insurance) that at some point our preparations will pay for themselves.

Benefits of integrated design and retrofit

Today, sustainable architecture offers the tools to balance multiple, conflicting factors in system’s design. The Egale Centre exemplifies the benefits of integrated design. The Egale Centre is a counseling centre and transitional shelter for street-involved LGBTIQ2S youth that offers an inclusive, energy-efficient and future-proofed building for all its clients and guests, while addressing a rising issue of youth homelessness in Toronto. It is estimated that 25 per cent of Toronto’s homeless youth identify as LGBTIQ2S. Many find themselves forced to leave their family homes, only to find most shelters are not prepared to address their sexual identity.

To determine how the new building should look and function, Sustainable conducted rigorous design exercises with the youth, the community, and with Egale staff. This collaborative approach supported the project mandate to create a safe, sustainable, and inclusive facility. It also illustrates how an adaptive-reuse project incorporating a deep-energy retrofit can deliver substantial carbon reduction.

“It is often said that ‘the greenest building is the one that already exists’,” says Dowsett. “To get to green you’ve got to minimize carbon. By adaptively reusing existing buildings, any project starts with a definite embodied-carbon advantage. The operational energy-efficiencies of the renovated building, over its lifespan, will continue this carbon advantage into the future.”

Sustainability and resilience features of the Egale Centre include:

  • Retrofit versus New: Sustainable retrofitted two existing buildings, with a deep energy retrofit, reducing embodied carbon through construction and reducing operational carbon through energy-efficiency.

  • Indoor Air Quality: Superior air-tightness, continuous thermal insulation and triple-pane windows create comfortable, safe, and healthy interiors. Vertical Fan Coil Units (VFCs) in each residential unit enable individual control. Natural and low VOC interior materials minimize harmful off-gassing and maintain a cozy, home-like feeling.

  • Exterior Shading: Strategic solar shading enhances occupant comfort, while reducing unwanted solar heat gain and cooling load in the summer.

  • Uninterrupted Power Supply: While the high-performance building enclosure reduces the energy required for the building’s heating and cooling loads, in the event of a power failure this enclosure will also maintain a comfortable interior longer than typical ‘code-minimum’ buildings. Battery backup is used to maintain core functions, such as the security system and emergency lighting.

Although it is important to ensure that new buildings operate as efficiently as possible, it is even more vital that existing buildings be upgraded or retrofitted for energy efficiency. Conventional energy retrofits focus on isolated electrical or mechanical system upgrades (e.g. lighting, heating, or air conditioning). But now that we understand the limitations of our carbon future, it is essential that retrofits undertake a whole-systems, deep energy approach that include the building envelope. This approach can retain the existing building’s embodied carbon and transform how a building operates, to realize deep energy savings.

“The production and use of energy represent 81 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions,” notes energy consultant Peter Love. “As these emissions have been conclusively proven to result in climate change, we need to focus on the type of energy we use and how much we use.” Love says the most effective way to cut GHG emissions is to first reduce energy consumption, and then seek out non-carbon sources to meet the remaining needs.

Technology solutions for buildings of the future

Another future-proofing imperative is understanding and leveraging the benefits and risks of new technologies in construction and operation of the built environment. Fast-growing technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), building automated systems (BAS), and building information modelling (BIM) are changing the way we design and occupy buildings and cities.

As they pick and choose from this grab-bag of new technologies, architects, engineers, and builders should focus on new technologies and systems that support connectivity and openness. Connection is the backbone of today’s smart buildings and of tomorrow’s smarter cities. According to Martin Canning, executive director of the Smart Cities program at Toronto-based Evergreen Canada, “the future smart city will be open, connected environments that harness the power of diverse new technology tools and disciplines to predict, prepare for, and respond to major events.” These tools, he says, include “technological networks, data science, application programming interfaces (APIs), design/systems thinking, the Internet of Everything, building and infrastructure design, among other things. Since the primary nodes of connectivity in future smart cities will be open, we need to invest in open-technology systems that support this growing need.”

When extreme weather events or power outages strike, they affect everyone and everything in the vicinity. Solving the many interrelated problems that result requires an open, responsive, information-sharing system, based on a platform of open standards and connectivity. Canning continues, “Cities need to stay flexible and prepare for a future based on open standards and connecting interfaces.”

Building the future in Waterloo

Cora Group is a developer and manager of office properties in Waterloo, Ont. Adrian Conrad, Cora’s chief operating officer, is personally committed to reducing GHG emissions. The symbol of his commitment is evolv1: a three-story, 110,000-square-feet office building that recently opened in Waterloo’s “Idea Quarter,” next to the University of Waterloo.

As the first Canadian multi-tenant building designed to achieve a net-negative carbon output, evolv1 proves that new developments can be aggressively sustainable, economically-viable, and delivered at market rates.

The vision for evolv1 began with developing a building that would be energy net-positive and operates with zero carbon. Four years in the making, evolv1 was developed in collaboration with architects, engineers, trades and tenants. “To be future-aligned,” says Conrad, “we collectively examined the issues of climate change and the environment and pushed the boundaries of conventional construction to create a sustainable and resilient building.”

Development of evolv1 involved energy modelling to evaluate the building’s performance and to inform follow-up decisions throughout the design process. The results speak for themselves. Heated and cooled through a geothermal system buried 150 metres under the building, evolv1 is Canada’s first project to receive a Zero Carbon Building – Design certification. The next target for evolv1 is LEED Platinum certification. Looking ahead, the Cora Group envisions an industry shift to developing more sustainable, resilient, and responsive buildings and cities. Plans to develop evolv2 are already underway.

Key Takeaways

The message for architects, engineers, builders, owners, policymakers, and business leaders—and all concerned citizens—is clear. Start now to prepare for a future of complex challenges and integrated solutions. But you don’t try to figure them all out yourself. The future of communities is collaborative. Working with all stakeholders will truly future-proof your projects, by building community support, sharing relevant data, better understanding the ever-changing risks, and leveraging new resources and technologies.

The future has arrived, with truly golden opportunities to create a better, cleaner, and more resilient world. The diagnosis sounds alarming: we have to change the way we design and interact with buildings and cities as living systems. But the results will justify the effort if we truly understand the risks of inaction and engage all stakeholders to explore the best ways to achieve our creative visions in an era of continuing uncertainty.

Yasmin Glanville is the founder and a board director of RethinkSustainability.ca.

Pages 18-20 in ReNew Canada’s May/June 2019 edition.