• January 19, 2024

How can we rethink traditional practices in existing buildings to make them more sustainable and livable? What about evaluating, designing, and sometimes redesigning buildings’ energy consumption and operations to reduce their lifecycles’ carbon footprints without sacrificing occupants’ comfort and well-being?

Those were the main areas of focus at the 2023 Decarbonization Conference for the Built Environment  held by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) in Washington, D.C.

Our Technical Director of Building Performance and Sustainable Strategies Oscar Hernandez attended to present innovative Canadian designs to an audience of North American engineers and architects, discussing strategies and technologies that could be employed to reduce the carbon footprint of existing buildings.

As Martin Roy et Associés presented our sustainable design lab The Phenix, Oscar presented the United Auto Parts (UAP) Montreal head office. Covering everything from energy-efficient retrofits and renewable energy sources to sustainable building materials and studies of real-world projects. Here are five key takeaways from his presentation:

Indoor environment Quality IEQ comes first: As the built environment has some of the strongest directly measurable effects on the physical and mental health of its occupants, improving energy efficiency must also mean improving our own comfort. IEQ comes first when applying sustainable strategies and using the Zero Carbon Building from CaGBC standard as a guideline:

  • Begin with assessing and prioritizing strategies in the design process
  • Using digital tools to predict building behaviours
  • Bioclimatic potential assessments
  • Improving thermal and visual comfort (i.e. access to natural light)

Retrofits mean revaluing existing buildings: Recycling needs to be part of our architectural practices. When we retrofit and modify existing buildings, we can improve their performance, breathe life back into them, and uncover new purposes within them. That’s how we can achieve carbon emission reduction goals in the buildings sector, as well as unlock new value: It’s a path to sustainably using resources, reducing energy costs, and revitalizing neighbourhoods.

We need to reassess the structure of carbon credits: The carbon credits system—which permits a limited amount of CO2 to be emitted within a compliant market—should not be seen as a strategy, but more as a final step in the building process. While a building can compensate for its pollution by paying for emissions to not happen somewhere else, many are questioning the carbon credit structure and want more transparency around how it represents the avoidance, reduction, or removal of carbon emissions from the atmosphere. So, assuming carbon credits have a place in our policies moving forward, how can we better ensure that they lead to carbon neutrality?

First comes optimization, then comes emissions: Emissions reductions to the lowest possible point is essential, but they must be put in place once a building has been optimized to the fullest extent—that’s how energy efficiency measures and strategies can operate at peak efficacy:

  • Passive strategy integration
  • Improving energy efficiency measures such as lighting and HVAC
  • Designing with simplicity to ensure peak performance over time
  • Improving architectural features like footings and foundations, wall and roof assemblies, floors and ceilings, stairs, and parking structures.

Transdisciplinary work is the best work: Integrated design processes, like the one used at UAP, allows for collaborative work between architects, engineers, project managers, clients, building management, and consultants to combine their expertise and goals. Together, empowering ownership can help create a shared sense of responsibility for reducing carbon emissions.

As these takeaways provide insights into sustainable measures that can be taken with existing buildings, they can also be accomplished without increasing costs. By focusing on optimizing the architectural components in the same way we do for mechanical systems, we can greatly improve the performance of older buildings. With projects like UAP, for example, there was as much as 34% in energy savings or $40,000 per year when compared to a similar building using the 2015 National Energy Building Code (NEBC 2015) —yielding a return on investment within 6.2 years.

Conversations like these at ASHRAE are important not only because they remind us of the importance of increasing buildings’ performance while reducing their emissions, but they also offer a chance for us to represent the important work of our team to international audiences.

Our thanks to ASHRAE for hosting this event and having us present!