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EE Q & A: Andrew Pape-Salmon, RDH Building Engineering Ltd.

Energy Efficiency Building Trends: Benchmarking and improving air quality in tight buildings

Andrew Pape-Salmon

Andrew Pape-Salmon is a senior energy specialist at the building science engineering, architecture, and construction management firm. Based in Vancouver, RDH has four other offices Victoria and Courtenay in BC, and Seattle and Portland in the US. Established in 1997, RDH has 130 employees.


Q. What do you do in your own offices to conserve and be energy efficient?

A. Almost from day one the firm has been focused on minimizing its ecological footprint. We’re a member of Climate Smart, a BC-based program that helps businesses reduce their carbon footprint and cut costs. As a result of it, there are a number of things we’re doing. We’ve implemented efficient travel initiatives for employees — video conferencing, bus tickets, carpooling, bike storage and entering a team in bike-to-work week. We’re working on paper reduction. We’ve completed an ENERGY STAR® Portfolio Manager benchmark of our head office in Vancouver and will be benchmarking other offices soon.  We have initiated a project to reduce energy and emissions at our head office. Our focus will be on the building enclosure; the walls, roof, windows — essentially building renewal instead of building retrofit, as many of these assemblies have reached the end of their service lives. It’s not just focused on energy reduction but also on the durability of the building and extending its life.  Our desired benefits include improving employee comfort and indoor air quality.

Q. What are the biggest energy efficiency challenges being faced in construction and engineering?

A. The common barrier to energy efficiency in buildings is the split incentive between those who construct or own the building and those who pay the energy bills. For condo buildings, there is the additional complication that strata corporations, or homeowner associations, pay the natural gas bills so there is little incentive for condo renters or owners to conserve with their gas fireplaces or hot water.  Also, the strata is responsible for building enclosure maintenance, which directly affects the energy consumption in residential units, such as electric baseboards in BC.  So, if you want to upgrade windows or reduce thermal bridging through the walls and balconies, that’s the responsibility of the strata council.  Right now, many residential units are inefficient, but the strata council is responsible for building enclosure, and the residents pay the electricity bills when they are individually metered.

We’d like to see energy efficiency be part of the building code that is applied to existing buildings. So when existing buildings are renovated that would trigger the building code. Currently only three jurisdictions in Canada – Vancouver, BC and Ontario — have energy efficiency for large buildings included in the building code.  Other provinces are considering it. The 2011 National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings will be adopted in building codes across Canada, but it doesn’t deal with existing buildings.

There could be more improvement in existing buildings if utility companies offered some on-bill financing for better windows and doors. Instead of going to a bank and taking out a loan, utilities would finance higher efficiency windows, and the strata council would pay down that loan at a low-interest rate, transferable between different owner groups.

Q. What is your company doing to face these challenges?

A. The company was instrumental in addressing the leaky condo problem here in Vancouver starting in the late 90s.  Now there is a lot of work around “depreciation reports” and reserve fund studies for building asset management.  A major renovation is the perfect opportunity to improve energy efficiency. If you’re renewing the building enclosure, why not address energy efficiency at the same time?  All building components wear out eventually, so we encourage condo owners to consider energy performance at the time of renewals.  Instead of installing code-minimum assets, stratas could opt for high-efficiency upgrades that offer attractive paybacks from energy savings.

Q. What energy efficiency trends will have the most traction over the next two years in building?

A. One of the big ones is going to be benchmarking, the ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager. It’s like a food label for your building. It tells you how the product relates to your recommended daily nutrition intake. What we need is an energy label for buildings and make it an apples-to-apples comparison so you can compare it against its peers. Rated out of 100, 50 is the median and 75 is a good building. If your building performs at 90, in theory you should be able to rent it at a higher cost, as people with lower energy costs can pay a bit more in rent. Right now in an inefficient building, you can pay the same rent as in an efficient one. If there is a “green lease”, it could be that you want to occupy a green building, and pay a higher rent over a long term. But it’s very uncommon. [A green lease] might happen when a government office rents a private building, for example the carbon neutral government in BC. Right now if I’m buying a home in a condominium complex, I don’t know how it performs compared to the one across the street. Two buildings might look the same, but the reality is different.

Another big trend for multi-unit residential buildings (MURBs) is improving ventilation and indoor air quality.  As we tighten buildings, we need to think about air quality when opening the windows is not feasible, for example, in the winter. One solution is compartmentalization and ducting fresh air into suites. Condos rely on the hall corridors where the fresh air comes in through undercut in the door. We want to see more airtight condos with independent ventilation systems and heat recovery.

Q. How is RDH dealing with these trends?

A. We’re making recommendations to codes and standards . We are also involved on the design team for best practice, demonstration projects.  RDH just won a regional ASHRAE new construction award in Portland for The Ramona, an apartment building that has compartmentalizing. And we won a Canada Green Building Council in June for one of our projects in Vancouver, the Belmont. It was a “deep” energy efficiency residential retrofit.

Q. How do clients respond to energy efficiency costs?

A. Generally, strata corporations are cautious about investing in energy efficiency.  This is why we want to see on-bill financing. Currently energy costs are not front and centre for clients. They’re dealing with major building renewal costs and energy efficiency costs are seen as a second thought. We need to look at financing, or provide them with the tool of on-bill financing to take the upgrades without shelling out the capital. Capital cost barriers are still very prominent.  Also, utility demand side-management programs sometimes offer incentives that can entice owners to invest.

Q. Who are the global leaders producing energy efficient buildings?

A. California. New York state. The City of Vancouver is driving a lot of innovation within city boundaries. The Vancouver building bylaw is a building code for Vancouver, it’s required instead of the BC Building Code and is more comprehensive. Definitely parts of Europe – Germany and the passive house movement. A lot is driven by codes. A good model is the state of California, as they have standards for existing buildings, and it’s good to see those kinds of regulations coming into Canada. Due to persistent market barriers, such as split incentives and long-term impact of energy waste, there’s a strong rationale for governments in Canada to intervene in the market with regulations.

Q. What are Canada’s challenges to match that?

A. For higher performing buildings, there are really five key principles related to building enclosures and associated systems: more insulation, less thermal bridging, better windows, improved air tightness and effective ventilation. Right now there’s a strong move towards better lighting and condensing boilers. But we will quickly exhaust the low-hanging fruit. We need to focus on the building enclosure. We just finished a project on the west side of Vancouver, where we were able to implement an 85 per cent reduction in electric space heating through building enclosure upgrades.

Posted by Jane L. Thompson on July 4, 2013. The interview was edited and condensed.

One thought on “EE Q & A: Andrew Pape-Salmon, RDH Building Engineering Ltd.

  1. Good day Andrew
    How many of these large commercial buildings have a chimney poking out of the roof?
    What is leaving most of those chimneys? Hot Exhaust & CO2

    The US DOE states that for every 1 million Btu’s of heat energy recovered from the waste natural gas exhaust gases, and this recovered heat energy is utilized in the building or facility, 117 lbs of CO2 will NOT be put into the atmosphere.

    Why allow this heat energy to be wasted when with the technology of Condensing Flue Gas Heat Recovery most of the heat energy can be recovered. Being vented into the atmosphere will be COOL Exhaust.

    What natural gas is not wasted today, will be there to be used another day.

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