Integrated Sustainable Design Requires Systemic Change

On a high level, you can see that various elements are trending when it comes to sustainable design. It is easy to get caught up in any single one of them: electric vehicles; the housing crisis; the pandemic; and our need to transition off fossil fuels. It’s more difficult to see how they can connect together using good principles of sustainable design. In reality they all connect together, and must undergo change systemically.

Our future is unknown, but we can plan for possible futures today.

Photograph by Santiago Lacarta via Unsplash

Planning for Passive Solar

We have been wasting our fossil fuel resources on the heating and cooling very inefficient buildings. Our buildings could be up to 90% more efficient. High-performance buildings harness solar heat gains in the Winter, and are oriented so that they can be cooled with natural ventilation. The Saskatchewan Research Council in the 1970’s figured out how to do this decades ago in Canada

This approach has been further developed by the Passive House Institute in Darmstadt, Germany. Almost any building typology can be certified as a “Passive House”, but what’s holding us back is land use planning that does not enable buildings to have the proper access to solar. The majority of the streets in a development should be east-west in orientation. This type of land use planning would support passive solar design and ease our transition off of fossil fuels.

“Using Low-Embodied Carbon Materials”

The Passive House certification does not currently mandate that low-embodied carbon materials be used. This is a blind spot that I believe will change. Even the newest Toronto Green Standards and other green building standards are encouraging design teams to look at embodied carbon. That’s because it is critical to reducing our carbon emissions.

What we think of as “modern building materials” that were created using the coal and fossil fuels of the industrial revolution are not surprisingly high in embodied carbon. These materials include steel, concrete, and glass. If we keep using high-embodied carbon materials that we developed during our industrialized period then we will use up all of our remaining carbon budget just on those materials.

I was working on a prototype sustainable home with Dave Sellers Architect back in 2013. The plan that he had developed was to create a house out of concrete that would last 500 years. That would have been a good idea for sustainability, but we are in a climate crisis. This is an extreme example of how we have to think of our project design as part of a system.

Years later, I worked on a new construction project in Toronto of a home that ended up achieving the first LEED Platinum certification in the Greater Toronto Area. During the project’s design process I encouraged the design team to use low embodied carbon materials, and found them sources of salvage brick and wood to use for the project.

There were few LEED points rewarded for choosing salvaged materials and none currently for choosing low embodied carbon materials, and that is one of the shortcomings of using a checklist for a project instead of designing it systemically to reflect your overall goals and values that you want to embed into the project. I’ll be publishing a book about values-based design later this year, so subscribe to my newsletter if you want to be the first to hear about it and to be in the running to get a free copy.

It can be easy to make simple substitutions to lower embodied carbon materials, you just have to be conscious of the consequences of making such a switch. I’ll write another blog post about this where I will go into this in detail. I want to let you know about how to modify your conventional designs, and I want to talk about some plant-based building products that I am helping a company develop in the U.S. and I am super excited about this work and transition to carbon sequestering building materials

Using 100% Fresh Air Ventilation for Infection Control and Improved IAQ

We have been living through the COVID-19 pandemic for almost a couple of years now, and it took a while for the experts to even admit that the virus was airborne. Our building in North America have not been designed with infection control in mind.

When I was writing up the Sustainability Requirements for Humber River Hospital in 2009, fresh air ventilation with heat recovery was the number one strategy that I wanted to see implemented in the hospital. We were already talking about pandemic planning back then, using the lessons that we learned from SARS in 2003.

Using 100% fresh air ventilation with heat recovery is already commonplace in Europe, perhaps because their cultural memory from the plagues of the past is still strongly embedded into their societal framework and idioms. This has not been the case in North America where we relied on fireplaces that needed large amounts of combustion air, and draughty buildings to create enough fresh air flowing through the space. Then we switched over to inefficient forced air systems with recirculating air that just becomes a cesspool of potential infection with only one contagious person in the home.

In contrast, Passive House certified buildings have 100% fresh air ventilation. The heating and cooling loads are so low that this small amount of air can provide the heating and cooling delivery for the building.
In larger buildings, like Humber River Hospital, they rely on larger systems and enthalpy wheels to recover the heat.

I’ll never forget bringing Dr. Reuben Devlin, past President and CEO of Humber River Hospital (HRH) up to the Earth Rangers building in Vaughn to take a look at the large enthalpy wheel. It was a cold Winter’s day at minus 10 degrees C fresh air at one side of the wheel, and it was plus 10 degrees C on the other side of the wheel. Seeing that the air was simply passing each other on either side of a series of blades, with no risk of cross contamination, Dr. Devlin was convinced that we had to have this implemented in Humber River Hospital (HRH). It was his vision that was enacted, and it set a precedent for all Ontario hospitals to be built with 100% fresh air ventilation. Imagine how much money they saved during the pandemic because any ward could be converted to a COVID-19 care ward.

In Summary

In order to transition off of fossil fuels we have to reduce our energy loads. Once we do this with Passive House certified buildings then we have the potential to meet all of heating, cooling and electricity needs using renewable energy systems. The surplus can be stored in batteries or can be used to charge an electric vehicle.

We can design a new sustainable future for ourselves but we have to do it as a systemic change. Piecemeal approaches will just cost us a lot more money and it will create unintended negative consequences. If you are interested in taking this approach with one of your projects please contact me for a free introductory call to see if we are the right fit.

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