Policy Series #6 – The Next Steps

A series of articles by Rob Bernhardt, Advisor Projects and Policy for Passive House Canada. Rob has worked with international agencies, national, provincial and local governments in developing building policy. Prior to that he developed and sold certified Passive House buildings and lives in the first certified Passive House on Vancouver Island, in Victoria, BC.

Download this article as a PDF.

Recognition of the urgency of market transformation has been broadened by the pandemic which has put a spotlight on improved health outcomes and triggered the largest public infrastructure investment program the country has ever seen. Given the increased urgency & the once in a generation scale of public investment, what are the next steps, and what can each of us contribute?

Critically, we need to get our first steps right, set the bar where it needs to be and demonstrate success. While areas other than operating efficiency require transformation, operating efficiency is the first being addressed. This Policy Series has highlighted how Canada’s code system is struggling to adopt new strategies, preferring instead to continue use of our legacy systems and practices which have consistently demonstrated an inability to deliver excellence. Passive House levels of operating performance are sometimes still considered utopian, rather than a foundation to build upon. If we are unable to overcome this endemic inertia, the other imperatives of renewable energy and minimization of embodied carbon as soon as possible will also be out of reach.

“Critically, we need to get our first steps right, set the bar where it needs to be and demonstrate success.”

In part this is because of the extensive interrelationships between energy efficiency and the transition to renewable energy. Given the need for widespread electrification of our energy system, including industry and transportation, it becomes critical to maximize efficiency to ensure grid capacity. Recognizing this, the International Energy Agency for years has regarded efficiency as the first fuel. The impact of efficiency is highlighted by recent research on federal buildings in the Ottawa region that found that, after deep energy retrofits to enable disconnection from gas and district energy, electrical consumption will decline due to gains in efficiency and onsite generation (Conversation with Ralph Torrie, Torrie, Smith Associates, November 2020). The research also highlights the fact that highly efficient buildings are able to stabilize or shift heating/cooling loads in commercial buildings. Another study involving the California energy grid illustrated how the peaks in the classic “duck curve” of daily residential electrical demand could be flattened by building energy efficiency, enabling demand to be more readily matched by production.

Even without considering deep energy building efficiency through envelope measures, the impact on grid stability of more efficient building mechanical systems is significant. Efficiency also enables the provision of more service with less energy, enabling more buildings to be self-sufficient and remote communities to generate their energy from renewable sources. The concept of providing more service with less energy has been found to be particularly important in a program to extend energy service in India5, but the same principle applies in Canada. Despite there being no viable path to renewable energy that does not involve maximizing efficiency, we continue to see scenarios advanced that overlook this first imperative (Urge-Vorsatz, et al. Advances Toward a Net-Zero Global Building Sector p.242). How do we address such delusions of adequacy?

It begins by instilling a recognition of the scale of the task to be accomplished. Those who advocate for any of the four imperatives should advocate for all of them, recognizing the interdependencies and the need for a culture of excellence in relation to each. The development of effective regulations and methodologies for the calculation of embodied carbon will be no less challenging than the regulation of operating efficiency. There are as many complex, technical and debatable issues and conflicting interests in relation to embodied carbon as in operating efficiency, making an unbiased commitment to excellence central to standard development.

“Those who advocate for any of the four imperatives should advocate for all of them, recognizing the interdependencies and the need for a culture of excellence in relation to each.”

As part of its Greening Government Strategy, our federal government is undertaking the development of a life cycle assessment tools and a materials database to support their procurement. The initiative is likely to result in a life cycle assessment tool modelled on European standards, with a Canadian materials database. With luck the product of this initiative will be readily used in non-federal projects as well. Passive House Canada is engaged in that development through the involvement of Philippe St. Jean, one of our instructors based in Montreal. The plan is to develop a materials database that is easily updated and establish a benchmark for buildings which automatically updates as data becomes available. However we can anticipate a real challenge implementing sufficiently ambitious embodied carbon limits on buildings offering meaningful mitigation of climate change. The dynamics that reduce the level of ambition for energy efficiency will also work to limit ambition in reducing embodied carbon.

Throughout the process, a commitment to innovation and recognition of the role it can play is fundamental. The financial gains available through innovation in project delivery of deep energy retrofits illustrate the scale of opportunity, and the limited relevance of costing studies based on prevailing costs and practices. The Energiesprong deep energy retrofit program for affordable housing initiated in the Netherlands is targeting total project cost reductions of almost 70% while completing the work within one week on occupied units, with a 30 year performance guarantee from the contractor. Recently, they reported a 50% reduction in project costs and are continuing to reduce them further.

The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority studied the Energiesprong program and is implementing a similar one in New York State. To achieve net zero energy performance on low rise affordable housing retrofits in New York they are targeting Passive House new construction performance outcomes, with a 40% reduction in total project cost achieved through innovation (Bernhard R. 2020. Presentation by Saul Brown, RetrofitNY Project Manager, NYSERDA. Presented at the Residential Design and Construction Conference, Penn State Univ., State Coll., PA, March 5, 2020 11. Personal communication from Al Jaugelis, Technical Director, Fenestration Canada).

Recent conversations with those in the Canadian window industry indicate Canadian window companies have successfully designed Passive House certified windows they can manufacture at a small incremental production cost over the older window designs (Personal communication from Al Jaugelis, Technical Director, Fenestration Canada). In 2019 Cascadia Windows and Doors based in British Columbia won the EU funded international Special Prize: Aesthetic & innovation Award at the 23rd International Passive House Conference.

These examples and more, make it clear that not only must we transform buildings, but through innovation we can prosper in the process. Economic development is a key driver in some markets as the market for climate friendly buildings grows. If Canadian industry professionals and manufacturers wish to be competitive, they must lead, not follow. A commitment to excellence and embracing of innovation enables Canadians to enjoy the multiple benefits of high performance buildings at a lower cost than the buildings typically available today.

While progress can seem achingly slow, we have seen real progress even during the time this Policy Series has been published. On September 20, 2020 a proposed revision of the UN Framework Guidelines for Energy Efficiency Standards in Buildings received the first level of approval. It provides clearer guidance on the performance outcomes buildings should achieve. On October 19 a major academic paper I was privileged to co-author with leading climate scientists was published highlighting the feasibility of highly efficient, low carbon buildings. On November 26, 2020 the Treasury Board of Canada announced, effective immediately, all buildings built by or for the federal government are to be zero or low carbon, including major retrofits. Although the terms are not yet well defined, this represents a major commitment by the federal government to transform the market in relation to both operating energy, emissions and embodied carbon. On November 30th, 2020 the BC Government announced an incentive for all electric houses meeting the Passive House standard or the top step of the Step Code.

“There is rapidly becoming less and less room for informed argument about what is required and an increasing need to get on with the task.”

While the progress in many ways is significant, much work remains. We must end the continued use of legacy standards and practices not designed to provide outcomes required. For example, testing standards require modification and, as explained in an earlier Policy Series article, the use of the reference building approach for code compliance cannot deliver the outcomes required. In addition, the energy modelling business will require professionalization for municipalities to have confidence in the energy models submitted with building permit applications. For embodied carbon, an entirely new field of regulation is required. Resolving these and other issues within our regulatory system requires all hands to deck.

What can we, collectively, do to advance the process? Each and every reader should advocate for the changes required, speak up at work, with elected representatives and public sector staff.

Let everyone know of need and desire for better buildings, and our capacity to deliver them. Make use of this policy series and the many other resources available through Passive House Canada to broaden the interest in and understanding of buildings delivering the four imperatives outlined in the first article in the Policy Series. The staff, instructors and leadership of Passive House Canada will continue to provide best in class training, events, stakeholder engagement and advocacy. With your active engagement, the committed talents of that team and the efforts of aligned organizations, we will keep the issues and solutions on the front burner. As the urgency of implementing real change accelerates we can all play a role in ensuring success.