Reaching the tipping point of performance-based building design

Imagine a building that uses no more energy than the landscape that surrounds it. Now envision a building that generates surplus energy and feeds it back into the energy grid to create an energy regenerative building. Well, imagine no more. The future is already here and net zero buildings are now a reality.

“What is now proved was once only imagined.” - William Blake

What are sustainable buildings?

Green buildings, also known as green construction or sustainable buildings in the construction industry, refers to structures built by a process that is environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's complete life-cycle. From initial planning through to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition, the true cost of a building is the total cost over the full life-cycle.

The need for long-term thinking

Despite increasing evidence that green buildings cost less to operate and produce long-term economic advantages for owners and tenants, green buildings still remain a fraction of all development. One of the primary reasons for building owners and developers not fully adopting economically beneficial green building practices is capital financing. However, green building construction costs continue to reduce as this practice becomes the norm, e.g. LEED certified buildings vs. “building code only” buildings.

Part of the challenge is the disconnect, or lack of incentives in the planning and design process for the developer to include the economic impacts of operations. While there is an interest on behalf of the developer to keep the capital costs within a calculated budget, there is also a long-term interest on behalf of the owner and/or tenants to decrease the utility costs that will last the life of the building. A question arises as to how to provide incentives for developers to pay attention to the operational costs. Or is there an opportunity to shift the economic model, where the owner and tenants demand long-term performance criteria, which dictates or stipulates how developers build their buildings?

Supporting development through green loans

Green loans have been introduced to fund the requirements of adding upfront costs to the project and ultimately decreasing longterm operational costs to the owner. Green loans involve a lender that provides funds for investing in additional efficiency technologies and upgrades. This can move the building into a sustainable green building classification, as part of the planning objectives.

The recipient of these loans pays back the lender with funds that would have otherwise gone towards utility bills. Over time, the green loan is fully repaid and the owner (or tenant) recognizes ongoing cost and utility savings. In many cases, sustainability retrofits or building improvements will pay for themselves in an acceptable timeframe, and it is only a question of getting the financing right.

Building optimization and commissioning services

But even sustainable buildings require ongoing performance monitoring and adjustments. Building commissioning services ensure that a building’s equipment and control systems are performing as designed and that there are procedures in place to maintain high performance over the life of the building. Today, a surge in growth in energy-efficient building design, along with the increased complexity of construction projects, are accelerating demand for commissioning services, which include not only initial building commissioning, but also recommissioning, retrocommissioning, and continuous commissioning.

As green buildings become more complex in design and technology, it is vital that measurement and verification systems be in place to support ongoing management of high building performance. Over time, the delivery of commissioning services will be transformed through the initiation of building energy management systems with continuous commissioning capabilities.

These systems, which tie into a building’s existing building management system or building automation system, can continuously monitor and provide fault detection and diagnosis within a portfolio of buildings, thereby enabling a level of continuous improvement that today’s commissioning services and solutions will be part of ongoing asset management. Associated Engineering’s asset management framework can then be used to develop and assess organizational asset management capability across 11 key elements of asset management practice, on a scale from awareness to excellence.

At Associated Engineering, sustainable design is purposefully defined, not as a stand-alone discipline, but as a common practice with thoughtful, creative, and innovative engineering that crosses all disciplines.

We have worked with clients to incorporate sustainable design principles into projects, including the Northern Sunrise Water Treatment Facility in Peace River, Alberta, registered in 2009 with the Canada Green Building Council, and LEED Silver certified in 2012. The Barnston Wastewater Treatment Facility in Maple Ridge, BC is presently under construction and is targeting LEED Silver status. Our industry is definitely on a sustainable design pathway, creating buildings and communities that meet LEED standards, the 2030 Challenge, and the International Living Future Institute’s “Living Building Challenge”, the world’s most challenging green building rating system for sustainability. It is possible to design and construct communities of buildings that not only sustain a healthy workplace, but also a healthy environment.

About the author:

Mark Porter, M.Eng., FIStructE., P.Eng., LEED AP, is a Senior Building Structural Engineer and Manager, Facilities with over 15 years’ experience on the design of a wide range of structures. As a LEED accredited professional, he works with clients to incorporate sustainable design measures in building solutions. Mark is a member of the APEGBC Sustainability Committee and past chair of Associated Engineering’s Sustainable Design Interest Group.