Making the Invisible Visible: Designing for energy efficiency with insulation

These downtown Toronto buildings have outer shells composed mostly of glass – making insulation and energy efficiency more challenging. Photo ©

There are numerous certification programs recognized in this country, including Canada Green Building Council’s (CaGBC’s) LEED and Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) Canada’s Building Environmental Standards (BOMA BESt). BOMA BESt certifies existing commercial buildings after assessing the environmental performance and management, not only accounting for its energy-efficient design, but also its performance over time. Applicants are required to submit utility bills, so certification is granted to buildings that can demonstrate energy savings. Additionally, since recertification occurs every three years, the label maintains the building’s continued status as energy-efficient.

On the other hand, although the LEED standard is widely recognized and frequently adopted by governments, it has been criticized for certifying buildings that do not demonstrate higher levels of energy efficiency when compared to those built to code. This could be in part due to the certification process and to the application’s rating system. Firstly, applicants do not need to recertify after a specified amount of time. Secondly, the focus of the rating system’s energy section includes sustainable materials and resourcefulness, indoor environmental quality, and overall energy performance.

However, one of the drawbacks cited of the LEED standard is the lack of focus on the building envelope. Despite containing highly efficient mechanics or sustainable materials, a building constructed without regard to its building envelope could result in the consumption—and waste—of a large amount of energy.

The developers of the LEED program recognized certified buildings require maintenance to continue to function efficiently. For this reason, the rating system also includes a benchmarking tool that allows the buildings’ owners and managers to monitor their energy consumption, and compare its current levels to what was achieved at the time of certification.

On the path to standard benchmarking
Thanks to some benchmarking tools, owners and residents can see how their buildings’ energy consumption compares to others. These tools could result in a larger market for energy-efficient buildings.

Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) is currently in the process of adopting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager. This benchmarking tool has been successful in the United States as it is the leading tool, with 40 per cent of commercial building space using it—including more than half the Fortune 100 companies, and half of the largest healthcare organizations, education facilities, and municipalities. The success story is expected to continue in Canada, as thousands of commercial buildings have already been registered and green building certification programs, such as BOMA BESt and LEED, align their requirements to it.

To merit an energy efficiency label, buildings with many window areas must contain highly energy-efficient mechanicals to compensate for inefficient envelopes. Photo courtesy S. Charles

In Canada, it is being adopted as the platform for the nationwide benchmarking program for existing buildings. Since its inception in July 2013, more and more building types are able to register. To date, K-12 schools, commercial office buildings, hospitals, supermarkets or food stores, and medical offices can register, with more to be added.

Municipalities have used the tool to motivate building owners and managers to benchmark and retrofit their buildings. For example, the Great Toronto Civic Action Alliance’s Race to Reduce aimed to lower the energy consumption of registered office buildings by 10 per cent within four years. The City of Richmond, B.C., has the EnergySave program where they set a goal to lower GHG emissions by 33 per cent by 2020.

As an alternative compliance path, NECB is currently evaluating CSA Group’s C873 Series-14, Building Energy Estimation Methodology (BEEM). Adapted to the Canadian market, it provides simplified building energy calculations with results similar to those modelled in CanQuest—Canada’s building energy simulation software that can be used to demonstrate performance path compliance with the NECB—and has a proven track record of more than eight years in Germany. If the proposal for its adoption into the NECB is accepted, it will allow existing buildings to benchmark their energy performance to new builds. This could be the motivation owners and managers of existing buildings need to invest more in energy efficiency.

What makes benchmarking different to other ‘green’ initiatives is it shows people how their buildings measure up, and where their strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to energy efficiency. Perhaps their mechanicals are poorly functioning, their technology is outdated, or the building is insufficiently insulated. Benchmarking would show a building with highly efficient mechanicals, but poor insulation is still a leaky energy hog.

Though energy efficiency codes push for tighter building envelopes and energy labelling helps grow the market for ‘greener’ buildings, it is energy benchmarking that is changing the game. It shows building designers, owners, and managers which measures will have the largest impact on reducing energy consumption, and they can see whether their buildings are energy efficient or not. Benchmarking makes the invisible visible, and it shows preference for energy-efficient designs, rather than purely esthetic ones.

authorTara McClinchey serves as the research/communications co-ordinator for NAIMA Canada, an association for manufacturers of fibreglass, rock, and slag wool insulation conducting business in Canada. Through her research and marketing efforts, she has promoted energy efficiency and environmental preservation through the use of insulation. She can be contacted at

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