The future of Canada’s low-carbon energy-efficient buildings

November 30, 2016

Photo © Bigstock Photo

By Paul Bertram, FCSI, CDT, CSC, LEED AP, GGP
In November, the Paris Agreement[1] came into force with the opening of the Conference of the Parties (COP) 22 meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco. The nations that have signed on represent more than 55 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. One such signatory is Canada, which has joined the global community in striving to keeping the global temperature rise this century below 1.5 C (2.7 F).

On April 21 (Earth Day), Canada committed to this goal[2] at the United Nations (UN) headquarters in New York City. What does this really mean for design/construction professionals and the building industry, however?

This article serves as a framework to consider strategic, tactical, and operational perspectives on delivery of high-performance, energy-efficient buildings. It is based on this author’s personal experiences as a delegate of the Paris COP21 meeting that served as the origin of this climate-change initiative, and as a CSC member involved in the design/construction industry for more than a quarter-century.

Government pushing for change
At the Paris COP21, Canada endorsed a more ambitious goal for reducing GHG emissions than the UN climate change summit was officially targeting. The country’s environment and climate change minister, Catherine McKenna, stated she wanted the Paris Agreement to restrict planetary warming to just 1.5 C, rather than the proposed 2 C (3.6 F).

The B.C. Tree Fruit Cooperative’s facility in the Okanagan region features 23 controlled-atmosphere storage rooms with insulated metal panels (IMPs) boasting a continuous polyisocyanurate (polyiso) rigid insulation core providing high RSI and U-values. Using such materials can help reduce use of mechanical systems for heating and cooling, thereby lowering GHG emissions.
Photo courtesy Kingspan Insulated Panels

In March, a joint statement issued by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Barack Obama discussed both a common vision for a prosperous and sustainable North American economy and the opportunities afforded by advancing clean growth. The two leaders also emphasized the importance of continuing to co-operate closely with Mexico on climate and energy action to strengthen a comprehensive and enduring North American climate and energy partnership. Mexico has already implemented carbon taxes.

This year, Canada and the United States also affirmed their commitment to adopting a Montreal Protocol amendment regarding the phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), and to providing increased financial support to help developing countries with implementation. Both countries will continue to support a range of activities that promote greener technologies and alternatives to HFCs with high global warming potential (GWP). The phase-down of HFCs has an impact on HVAC mechanical equipment relative to the building industry.

In October, Ottawa unveiled a carbon pricing scheme that will require minimum pricing for carbon pollution to meet Paris Agreement targets. A minimum federal price of $10/tonne will be set in 2018, rising by $10 each year to $50/tonne in 2022 (at which point it will be reviewed). To keep the plan revenue-neutral, the federal government will return the price to the provinces to use as seen fit.

This revenue can be used for many different purposes, including climate change mitigation and offsetting related effects on low-income residents. Ideally, some of this money could be dedicated to deep-energy retrofits for buildings that offer longer paybacks, along with renewable energy and sustainable transportation infrastructure.

The GLOBE Leadership Summit is North America’s largest and most influential sustainable business leadership summit. It demonstrates the important role businesses, governments, and investors play in Canada’s transition to a low-carbon economy that provides good jobs and great opportunities for Canadians. At this event in March, the federal government announced its commitment to invest in two initiatives that intended to give Canadian cities and towns the tools to reduce emissions and adapt to a changing climate.

As an important first step, the prime minister cited $75 million in new funding to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) to help local governments reduce emissions and build climate resiliency at the municipal-level. The federal government will also invest $50 million to improve climate resilience in building and infrastructure codes across Canada.

In the World Resources Institute’s report, “Accelerating Building Efficiency,” codes are noted as most effective when developed within a policy package of mandatory regulations and standards, financing programs, and incentives for projects to go beyond minimum performance requirements.*

The report observed delivering energy-efficient buildings requires an upfront investment that is then repaid many times over through savings on energy and other operating costs. To recover this initial expense in energy-efficient buildings, building team members (at every stage in the building’s life) must implement appropriate design and technology solutions to meet the owner requirements. Building codes can help align the interests of all by specifying cost-effective energy efficiency options at each stage of a building’s lifecycle.

Canada’s current energy efficiency information
Although hydroelectric energy generation does not directly correlate with greenhouse gas, it is affected by the rising temperatures projected across Canada due to global warming. A decade ago, the Sage Centre and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reported[3] Ontario’s hydroelectric power production and Alberta’s oil sands sector would potentially cause small rises in temperatures on the Great Lakes regions and the Athabasca River, respectively.

The report stated different regions could warm by as much as 6 C (11.8 F), leading to changes in rainfall patterns, more evaporation from lakes and rivers, and reduced glacial flow that ultimately results in lower river and lake levels. (A few years ago, this author visited the Columbia Ice Field—which covers 33,670 ha [83,200 acres] and has a maximum depth of 365 m [1200 ft]—and was shocked to discover it is shrinking by 30 per cent every 100 years.) If continued, Ontario could be forced to cut hydro power generation by two per cent (i.e. to 17 per cent) and Alberta would have to curtail new oil sands projects, which currently use two to 4.5 barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil, as well as large amounts of energy. These issues affect energy security, supporting the need to reduce demand-side energy from buildings beyond GHG reductions.

Statistics Canada and Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) have reported[4] more than 70 per cent of Canada’s electricity supply was generated from non-GHG emitting sources. (Of this, 62.6 per cent was through hydro generation, placing Canada at the top of the list in renewable energy source use.)

Between 1990 and 2012, Canada’s energy efficiency improved by 24.2 per cent. These improvements saved Canadians $37.4 billion and decreased GHG emission by 86.6 megatonnes. However, between 1990 and 2014, coal was the largest GHG emitter in the electrical power sector. This is the area where improvement is targeted, and energy efficiency programs and incentives are critical to improving emissions related to these sectors.

Deep energy retrofits can add exterior insulation metal panels (IMPs) to improve the performance of existing building enclosures.
Image courtesy Nicholson Sheffield Architects

Benchmarking and codes for reducing demand-side energy requirements
Energy benchmarking is the practice of comparing the measured performance of a facility or organization to itself, its peers, or established norms, with the goal of informing and motivating performance improvement. Canada has no federal mandates for rating and disclosure at the national level. However, Canadian building owners and managers of more than 13,000 buildings are using NRCan’s adaptation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) EnergyStar Portfolio Manager tool to better understand the energy performance of their facilities, as well as the effectiveness of targeted energy efficiency initiatives for improvement. (Launched in 2013, this Canadian adaptation uses domestic site, source energy, GHG emission factors, and other country-specific information. It also uses enhanced Canadian weather data [more than 150 weather stations], metric units, and a bilingual user interface. Visit[5].)

To aid with energy benchmarking, the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) has developed a national framework[6] to provide support to local governments (i.e. cities and provinces) developing such strategies and regulations.

At the code level, the 2015 National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings (NECB) includes more than 90 changes from its previous 2011 edition to improve the overall energy performance of buildings. Performance path modelling rules and guidance have been updated to reflect changes to the prescriptive path, as well as more current typical use profiles of buildings.

What might be the next step? Outcome-based codes are now being considered—this type requires a specified EUI with a modelled performance to be achieved and verified during building operation over a period of at least 12 months.

Further, green building certification programs are the key in delivering high-performance, low-carbon, energy-efficient buildings. In Canada, initiatives for commercial buildings include:

Canada has signed on to the Paris Agreement, an international plan to reduce climate change through lowering greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This will have an effect not only on the country’s new construction, but also existing buildings that may require retrofits to ensure ideal energy performance.
Photo © Bigstock Photo

Building science’s role
At the panel discussion in which this author participated at a Paris COP21 sidebar session, “A Key to Energizing Efficient, Productive, and Smart Cities and Grids,” the talk turned to deep energy retrofits, including exterior recladding. Other business and policy panelists discussed unlocking emissions reductions and increasing energy productivity through energy-efficient and smart technologies in our cities and electricity grids. These solutions deliver:

A high-performance envelope is critical to building energy efficiency, but is often a missed opportunity in life cycle assessments (LCAs). In a 2009 report[7] by McKinsey & Co., “U.S. Mid-range Greenhouse Gas Abatement Curve 2030,” shell improvements, including insulation, were noted as cost-neutral over the lifetime of a commercial building.

From a building science perspective, the envelope impacts more than half of all interior loads, including lighting, space heating, and space cooling. The ‘support’ and ‘control’ functions are critical to delivering high-performance energy-efficient buildings. These functions include design considerations of interior and exterior loads, along with the respective modelling of air and moisture movement, heat transfer, thermal bridging, lighting, and sound. Loads from wind, impact, expansion and contraction, and gravity are calculated to specific climates of the project.

Having the thermal and hygrothermal modelling done upfront provides the design team with scenarios to make more informed decisions for the specified target.

Deep energy retrofits
When it comes to existing buildings, the goal is to identify scalable, repeatable clean-energy, and low-carbon solutions through modelling, measurement, and verification. One non-Canadian example is the recladding of Boston’s Castle Square Apartments—a building that had its standard brick façade transformed by super-insulated, offsite-constructed insulated metal panels (IMPs). The largest deep energy retrofit undertaken in the United States, Castle Square’s predictive modelling demonstrated energy reduction by 72 per cent with the super-insulated re-clad envelope system representing more than 30 per cent of the total. One year of post-project performance reported performance outcomes were 52 per cent over baseline. Modelling errors and lack of commissioning at the beginning proved to be the difference. Although not part of this particular project, ASTM E2813-12e1, Standard Practice for Building Enclosure Commissioning, would have been appropriate to specify to ensure enclosure performance.

Deep energy retrofits that include the envelope are challenging because of longer payback and upfront investment. Life cycle costing versus first costs must be projected with return on investment (ROI) and net present value (NPV) for a sound business case.

Heat mapping
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers have streamlined the process of heat mapping, allowing for scans of large groups of buildings or even entire cities. The process uses a vehicle outfitted with automated cameras that take thermal infrared images of buildings—similar to the way Google Street View cars obtain visual imagery. This method offers utilities a scalable and cost-effective means to gather superior intelligence regarding building stock across the entire territory.

Drones and thermal imaging
The ASTM task group on façade inspections introduced E3036, Guide for Notating Façade Conditions in the Field, and the proposed WK52572, Guide for Visual Inspection of Building Façades Using Drones, to better building façade inspections. (For more on this topic, see the September 2016 Construction Canada article, “Drones and Construction: Maximizing the Benefits while Minimizing the Risk,” by Paul Jeffs. Visit[8].) Using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to collect thermal imaging data from difficult-to-access locations will ensure buildings are performing as intended.

Offsite construction systems and assemblies
In an interview with Construction Dive, Dan Johnson (president of construction and real-estate firm Mortenson) said that offsite construction technology is making it possible to do offsite assemblies and prefabrication.

“If you look at what we believe to be the jobsite of the future, [it is] probably a lot more about assembling components that have been prefabricated in other locations, assembled in other locations, and delivered to the jobsite,” he explained. (The National Institute of Building Sciences [NIBS] Offsite Construction Council [OSCC] is a good reference on this topic. In Canada, the 2016 Modular and Offsite Construction [MOC] Summit was recently held at the University of Alberta. Visit[9] for more information.)

District energy
District energy systems produce steam, hot water, or chilled water at a central plant; this is then piped underground to individual buildings for space heating, domestic hot water heating, and air-conditioning. As a result, these buildings do not need their own boilers or furnaces, chillers, or air-conditioners. The result is improved energy efficiency and reliability, ease of operations and maintenance, decreased life-cycle and capital costs, and more architectural design flexibility.

The concept has received greater focus due to technological advances, increased concerns about the environment, and the need for municipalities to become more self-sufficient. Providing access to both lower-cost and more
environmentally responsible energy sources are primary goals[10].

Other measures
From a holistic view, after site orientation and envelope design, the next important step in creating a high-performance, low-carbon building involves the right-sizing of energy conservation measures (EMCs), such as lighting, building controls, and equipment with renewables or green power purchasing offsets.

The clean energy investment
At Paris COP21, Catherine McKenna, Canada’s minister of environment and climate change, presented key points for the government’s initiatives on clean energy investment:

Canada’s 2016 budget on climate change and clean energy investment includes:

The International Trade Association (ITA) expects the country’s new capacity through the end of next year to be focused on wind, solar, and hydropower development. According to some forecasts, Canada may commission a small amount of geothermal power in 2018, which could result in near-term exports (due to the long project timetable). Most of Canada’s clean energy policies are created and enforced at the provincial level.

Design and construction professionals, owners, and other building team members will want to further explore initiatives, technologies, and trends influencing requirements for high-performance, energy-efficient buildings for a low-carbon world. The role of each team member may vary, from strategic planning to tactical solutions to operational outcomes. To have as much knowledge at the beginning to make more informed decisions to deliver the design intent, integrated design strategies should be considered.

Specifiers write the project design intent, which is then delivered by the contractors co-ordinating the construction documents. The opportunity to be better informed helps ensure building construction and operations that help Canada meet its commitments to COP21 by reducing demand-side energy with high-performance energy-
efficient buildings.

The term ‘embodied energy’ refers to the energy required to extract, manufacture, transport, install, and dispose of building materials. Efforts to reduce this energy use and associated emissions (e.g. through manufacturing energy intensity reductions) can be made as part of a larger effort to reduce emissions from buildings. Embodied energy is part of the whole-building life cycle assessment (LCA); it is reported by materials with an environmental product declaration (EPD) and may be a specified consideration.


paul-bertramPaul Bertram, FCSI, CDT, CSC, LEED AP, GGP, is the director of environment and sustainability for Kingspan Insulated Panels North America. He represents the company on various U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE), ASTM, International Code Council (ICC), and National Institute of Building Science (NIBS) groups. Bertram’s current work includes government affairs where he drives advocacy for resilient and reliable building energy efficiency and related greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions on demand-side energy. He serves on the board of directors for the Business Council of Sustainable Energy, and was part of its delegation at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Bertram is a CSI past-president and a recipient of CSC’s F. Ross Browne Award for his writing. He can be contacted via e-mail at[11].

  1. Paris Agreement:
  2. goal:
  3. reported:
  4. reported:
  6. national framework:
  7. 2009 report:
  10. primary goals:

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