What can smart buildings do for the environment?
Sensors, data, and automation can serve a higher purpose, but only if we design them to
Start scrolling to begin
For Martin Damphousse, the mayor of Varennes, Que., environmental consciousness isn’t a passing bandwagon or a way to score easy points with voters.
“It’s a responsibility,” says the mayor of the 22,000-person community located 24 kilometres from downtown Montreal. “People really listen when you set an example.” Especially when the example, the Varennes public library, is Canada’s first institutional net-zero-energy building, meaning it was designed to produce about as much energy as it consumes.
The two-storey, 2,200 square-metre library opened in 2016, but its origins stretch back to a 2009 meeting between Mr. Damphousse and Gilles Jean, director-general of the federal government’s CanmetEnergy Research Centre in Varennes.
Mr. Jean wanted to collaborate with the city on a project that, according to the mayor, “would become a technological showcase.”
That technology is showcased through the library’s “brain,” a building automation system (BAS) that draws information from multiple sensors distributed throughout the library. “We had to create a very efficient [building] envelope and mechanical electrical systems that work together to ensure minimal [energy] consumption,” says Louis-Stéphane Racicot, the mechanical engineering discipline lead in the Montreal office of Stantec, the design firm that made the Varennes library a reality.
The sensors monitor the building’s temperature, humidity, occupancy, and ambient light levels, allowing the central system to make real-time adjustments to power consumption and energy production based on exactly what’s happening in the library. The building operators can access this data through a Web interface and smartphone app.
Mr. Damphousse calls the result “Varennes’ new centerpiece.”
The $11-million library cost 30 per cent more to build than a traditional building of the same size, but the mayor says it runs on 78-per-cent less energy (approximately 0.19 gigajoules per square metre) – and that means savings in the long run.
The library’s modest energy use is thanks to features such as geothermal pumps, more than 400 solar panels and ventilation units designed to maximize heat recovery. Excess power is returned to the grid. On a sunny day, Mr. Racicot estimates that the library can produce 60 kilowatts beyond its own energy needs.
The library currently generates 90 per cent of its total energy consumption. The only thing preventing the library from meeting its net-zero goal is its popularity: “It’s by far the most visited, and most used, public building in Varennes,” the mayor says. People love the new library so much that the city had to extend its opening hours – and that increased the building’s energy needs beyond the estimates used to calculate the solar panel requirements.
“There is enormous pressure on the environment today,” Mr. Damphousse says. “The municipality has a responsibility to lead by example by taking real measures to reduce global warming and reduce greenhouse gases. If we don’t set that example, we’re not credible.”
Understanding how tenants use energy
Like the Varennes library, evolv1 in Waterloo, Ont., uses smart technology to monitor and adjust power consumption and energy production.
Like Varennes, energy is produced by sustainable sources – in this case, photovoltaics and an open-loop geothermal system – with the excess put back into the grid. And like Varennes, evolv1 is another first, in this case Canada’s first zero-carbon design certified building – making a strong business case for smart and sustainable development, even for private developers.
Waterloo, Ont.-based Cora Group developed and owns the 10,000-square-metre, multi-tenant office building, which was imagined together with Sustainable Waterloo Region, the David Johnson Research and Technology Park, and anchor tenant EY. evolv1 opened in November, 2018, and has 95 per cent occupancy.
“I’d say sustainability is part of our mission,” says Adrian Conrad, the Cora Group’s chief operating officer, and son of founder Manfred.
“We’re a family-run business and, as a family, we’ve discussed how sustainability is one area we can make a difference. The advancement of increasingly affordable and useable smart technology is key to achieving our sustainability mission.”
Stantec principal Richard Williams worked on the building from the initial feasibility conversations through to completion. “One of the biggest unknowns when designing a smart, sustainable building is that it’s difficult to predict how tenants will consume energy,” says Mr. Williams. In evolv1, smart technology helps tenants see how much energy they are actually consuming, including use patterns. This helps them make positive changes to their activities and monitor their effectiveness. Furthermore, Mr. Conrad and his operations team can compare predicted versus actual energy use to see if the building is performing as intended.
Also in this series What does it mean to future-proof a city?
One design element being scrutinized by smart technology is a set of stairs in the building’s atrium. “We wanted to encourage people to take the stairs in order to reduce energy use from the elevators,” says Mr. Williams. “So we placed the stairs in a central location and tucked the elevators to the side. Convenient to reach, but not as visible.” Sensors on the stairs and elevators track actual usage patterns, which will inform future design decisions.
evolv1 is being used as what Mr. Williams calls a “living laboratory.” Research projects out of Waterloo University and Wilfrid Laurier University are using evolv1’s data to study the building’s occupants and resource usage with an eye toward encouraging occupants, and, by extension, users of other buildings, to engage in sustainable practices.
Getting from smart buildings to sustainable cities
Anton Germishuizen, a senior vice-president at Stantec, estimates that buildings account for up to 70 per cent of energy consumption in major cities and 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions globally. “Smart buildings can play a role in reducing the carbon footprint of cities,” says Mr. Germishuizen. “But to make a positive impact on the environment, there’s a growing awareness that smart buildings can’t be designed in isolation.”
That’s because many of the major systems that make up a smart city – mobility, water, power, energy – are designed to serve buildings. Therefore, when someone decides to make their new or existing building smart, their technology must be compatible with the technology of all the supporting systems.
In some cases, it’s the other way around, with smart buildings driving the systems that will support them. “Take smart microgrids,” says Mr. Germishuizen. “As smart buildings start talking to each other, cities and communities can create microgrids that can manage fluctuations of the energy, which can allow us to reduce overall energy demand and increase resilience in a community.”
It is clear to Mr. Germishuizen that smart buildings are foundational to smart cities. “You simply cannot have a smart city, nor a sustainable one, without smart buildings,” he says. “Half of the buildings that will exist in 2050 haven’t been designed or built yet, so it’s imperative that new construction be done in a smart way with a full understanding of the environmental benefits.”
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio.
The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.