Passive House Canada member Susan MacDougall, P.Eng., FEC, CHPC, has worked in the building industry for nearly 20 years and started Focal Engineering in 2015. She is an experienced mechanical engineer, energy modeller, presenter and project manager with a passion for sustainability, which has been her career focus. She is frequently requested to sit on provincial and national codes and standards advisory committees, review other modeller’s work, as well as provide industry presentations. She has also been an instructor with Passive House Canada since 2017. We caught up with Susan to hear more about her work and a discussion around gender diversity in engineering.
Q: Please tell us more about the work you do?
A: I am a mechanical engineer and focus on energy modelling which looks at the energy performance of buildings. We work on all types of projects including new and existing buildings, residential and institutional ones– and we’re fortunate to work with clients who want to do the right thing and make their buildings better. As a single family homeowner where densities are so low – I feel the responsibility to have highly efficient homes, so we’ve been working to get our home net zero.
Q: Your passion is in sustainability – what drew you into this field and specifically your interest in Passive House design and technology?
A: I was doing a business degree when I joined the solar car team, where we built and raced solar powered cars. I was astounded by the amount of energy the sun provides, and that it could drive us across the US and Australia. This kickstarted my interest in renewables and I decided to change my degree to engineering. This interest in sustainability has stayed with me – when I graduated I knew I wanted a job with a net positive impact on the environment. Since buildings produce about 40% of greenhouse gas emissions in first world countries – it was a natural step to enter this field. At my first company, I learned about energy modelling and passive design principles, which cemented my interest in sustainability, almost 20 years ago.
Q: Has the energy modelling industry come a long way?
A: When I first started, I could count the number of energy modellers in BC on one hand and now there are hundreds of us. We also find that architects and other engineers who may not be modellers have a greater understanding of energy modelling, and consider how their design impacts energy performance. Passive House is one of the standards that uses an energy model (the PHPP) right from the start, which allows us to have the greatest impact on the design.
Q: Can you describe your experience as a female engineer and how things have changed over the years? Do you have any advice for young female students considering becoming engineers?
A: In some ways it feels like it has improved yet in other ways, it still feels the same. I have been involved with Engineers and Geoscientists BC working on a national 30×30 initiative, where the goal is to get to 30% of new P.Eng.s to be female, by 2030. Believe it or not, even today only one in five new engineers are women and it has been at that level or lower for decades. That said, there is positive momentum, and the field of sustainability helps draws more women in. While all engineering is driven by public need, with a focus on health and safety and building a better world, I find that many women are drawn to roles where they feel they are giving back to society, so sustainable engineering is a great fit. For young females looking to enter this field? There is so much opportunity! Everything we do has to be sustainable and there are lots of opportunities to lead in this area and have a career that is very meaningful.
Q: Why did you think it was important to become a Certified Passive House Designer/Consultant? Any advice for those who are thinking about becoming one?
A: One of the real benefits of Passive House is that it makes you think about details that you might previously have assumed; I think that’s why Passive Houses get the level of performance they are known for. Becoming a certified designer or consultant will have you question design and construction decisions throughout the building process. And that’s why certification can be beneficial– until you get the certification and tick all of the boxes, you’re not guaranteed to get that full performance. Given that the energy performance is going to last for the entire life cycle of the building which could be 60 to 80 years, or more – it’s really important to get it right from the start.
Q: You are a Passive House instructor – tell us a bit about that experience and what do you enjoy most about it?
A: Bar none what I enjoy most is the people. Since we’ve gone online, although I miss the informal coffee chats from in-person classes, I have met participants from all over the country. When we look at project examples, we’ll apply the learnings in their own cities. I get to liaise with individuals who want to do the best thing for their project whether they are from a jurisdiction, a professional consultant or the homeowner. It gives me energy!
Q: Have you done any work with Indigenous Communities?
A: We are fortunate to work with several Indigenous Communities, mostly on the multi-family housing side. We love working on these projects because Indigenous owners embody the principles we strive for as a company, and we’re able to continuously learn from them. There’s no need to sell them on sustainability and efficiency – for them, the project begins there.
Q: What has been the most important piece of advice you have ever been given in your career?
A: ‘It’s not work/ life balance, it’s life balance .’ We are always trying to seek that elusive balance “right now” but this quite helps me think of it as having balance over time. I have two young children, and right now, I find I need to focus on my family right now whereas previously I had more time to volunteer. Look to find time in your life to focus on yourself, and at other times, you can give more to others.
Susan MacDougall and her solar-powered car during her university years.