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What can smart buildings do for the environment?

Sensors, data, and automation can serve a higher purpose, but only if we design them to

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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.

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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Editing by STEPHANIE CHAN, illustration by ISABEL FOO, creative direction by MONICA BIALOBRZESKI, development by KYLE YOUNG, design by JEANINE BRITO

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio.
The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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