• September 13, 2023

Energy efficiency is a big part of the puzzle of how we can lower our carbon emissions: the construction industry makes up 18% of Canada’s CO2 greenhouse gas emissions directly and indirectly—reaching a startling 40% worldwide, but as our energy consumption has grown faster than our reductions, energy efficiency needs to be pushed further to reach our goals of carbon neutrality by 2050. If actions aren’t taken now, we run the risk of increased obsolescence, and falling even further behind our essential targets.

But while energy efficiency is important for the environment and companies’ profitability, it shouldn’t be synonymous with making sacrifices. Its improvement is also important for our own comfort and—consequently—our productivity. Refining our buildings and optimizing their energy use has everything to do with how they look and feel to us, since it extends to all parts of a built environment, from fenestration to building envelopes, temperature regulation, humidity levels and the amount of light they receive.

There’s energy efficiency, and then there’s our comfort

Designing for energy efficiency not only gives us the opportunity to make a building sustainable without altering its use, but it can also lead to other benefits. Using less energy to get the same job done cuts down on maintenance and operating costs, resulting in a higher return on investment.

The reason buildings consume so much energy is to increase the comfort of those who use them, which in turn makes them more productive. As Northern designers coming from Canada, we’ve seen this from personal experience as users approach the lower temperatures of our climate by turning the thermostat up both at home and at work.

Comfort is a basic need. When employees in workplaces are asked what the most important factors in their comfort, it all comes down to their desks, chairs, and temperature control. By feeling cooler or warmer when it’s necessary, studies have shown that performance can be enhanced by reducing anxiety and generating a feeling of wakeful relaxation—an emotional state that’s important for creative problem-solving.

But these two factors—raising temperature to be comfortable and the effect of comfort our productivity—beg the question: How can we be comfortable without expending more energy?

One degree makes all the difference

While cold hands, feet and backs make us uncomfortable, the same goes for feeling too hot, and this can not only impact the productivity of a space’s users but their health as well. From excessive heating or direct exposure to the sun to energy inefficiency and outdated tech can contribute to the development of Sick Building Syndrome, a combination of negative symptoms experienced in airtight buildings due to various environmental factors such as poor air quality, inadequate ventilation, excessive noise, light levels, and so forth.

A high-performance building envelope can counteract this phenomenon by optimizing its structure’s thermal mass, taking advantage of materials with high inertia and high-performance heating systems such as radiant floors and ceilings, electric baseboards, and ceiling air systems. Whichever of these strategies are used, the result should remain the same, as the average human body temperature falls around 37°C and optimal interior temperature is around 21°C.

There are several ways of tackling this objective. In the winter, actions like reducing a façade’s exposure to wind will in turn reduce heat loss, as will optimizing their glass-to-surface ratios, and moderating how much heating is used. In the summer, the architectural form and the layout of a space can reduce direct sunlight with the integration of trees, solar protection, water misting systems, and fans.

Among all of these space modifications, one of the best ways to handle seasonal extremes overall is to incorporate nature-based solutions such as double walls from the outset of a building’s (re)design, found in projects such as the Grand Théâtre de Québec, as well as exterior vegetated walls with benefits such as heat island reduction, thermal regulation, carbon sequestration, rainwater management, increased biodiversity, improved air quality, and more.

These natural solutions extend to ventilation and the management of airflow, too. With projects like UAP’s Montreal head office, energy consumption is reduced for natural cooling while improving comfort: During summer nights, an automatic system installed in the roof allows hot air out while allowing cooler air inside, sealing it inside before the sun rises again and raises the temperature outside again. This natural cooling system reduces energy consumption and costs by 40%, benefitting both the environment and users.

Towards energy-efficient architecture

Faced with the need to decarbonize our built environments and make them more resilient to climate change, we need to prioritize passive solutions that integrate nature and work in concert with it. In this way, we can not only improve the energy performance of the space we live and work in, but also make them more comfortable, with benefits ranging from reduced operating costs to increased productivity and well-being. 


Discover the ways energy efficiency can be an integral part of the sustainability strategies by learning more about our Net Positive™ framework.