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Net-Zeroing in on Earth Day
Encouraging design that will positively affect the environment is one of Smith + Andersen’s core values. With sustainability ingrained in our company’s culture, Earth Day gives us a chance to reflect on both the positive environmental impact of our projects – and how our designs can reduce our carbon footprint even further.

A new and interesting expression is being added to the language of sustainability. “Net Zero” is increasingly showing up in discussions during RFPs and the initial concepts of building design. But what exactly is Net Zero? Who defines what it means? And what are the practicalities about designing Net Zero? Being a recognized leader in these matters, Smith + Andersen, along with its sustainability company, Footprint, is undertaking several projects with a defined Net Zero goal.

While it may be a relatively new concept, Smith + Andersen and Footprint’s previous experience on energy-efficient sustainable projects places us in a unique position to go “all in” on Net Zero.
Q&A with Smith + Andersen Team Members
Smith and Andersen team members group photo of Lyle Scott, Kevin Farbridge, Don Fox, Andre Drouin and Lana MacInnes
(From left to right)
Lyle Scott Principal - Footprint • Kevin Farbridge Principal - Mechanical • Don Fox Principal - Mechanical • Andre Drouin Principal - Electrical  • Lana MacInnes Associate Principal - Electrical 

How do you define the term Net Zero?

Lyle: It is extremely important, right from the start, to ensure the team is talking the same language and is fully aligned on a project’s goals. And one of the challenging “starts” for a project can be clarifying the meaning of net zero. There are different interpretations from those in a position to define the term, such as A Common Definition for Zero Energy Buildings by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Possibly the most accepted definition of Net Zero is that 100% of the building’s energy needs, on a net annual basis, must be supplied by on-site renewable energy. This aligns with the DOE’s definition of a Zero Energy Building (ZEB).

But there are also other sustainable goals, such as the Architectural 2030 Challenge, that interpret Net Zero in a different way. The 2030 Challenge, in particular, allows 20% of the required “on-site” renewable energy to actually originate from an off-site renewable source. This might be a definition that better suits the owner/project. So, as you can see, it is crucial that the project team understands which definition is being followed.

Does integrated building design play a role?

Kevin: Integrated building design is the language of sustainability. And, needless to say, it is always a hot topic for high-performance projects because it defines a process of inclusion for the entire project design team. Net Zero follows the same important process. Frankly, any project can be “Net Zero” – you just add enough solar panels to the building to meet the energy balance. But that’s not likely the financially viable or responsible thing to do. For many projects, there is simply not enough space for the vast number of solar panels needed to achieve this. Not unless, that is, very significant improvements are made to lower energy consumption within the building.

So the key factor becomes the integrated design team working together to effectively lower the energy consumption of the building. That will reduce the required amount of renewable energy, which is a capital cost. This becomes a truly interesting new economic when the capital cost of the energy efficiency measures has to be balanced against the cost of the renewable energy infrastructure. Complicating the equation is the political influence on the varying Feed-in Tariff rate, if that is going into the life cycle costing.

What does Net Zero or sustainability mean to you as an MEP firm?

Don: Fundamentally, energy efficiency. It is a familiar story. If the building and its systems can be optimized to minimize the use of energy, then we are on the path to sustainability. Many of the projects S+A has been involved in over the years (see list, below) are highly efficient from an energy-use perspective. If you ask, “What is the limit?” arguably Net Zero would meet not only a sustainability milestone, but also the implied definition of sustainability: extending our resources infinitely. There is another limit, which is the area available for solar panels. This is what drives our team to pursue a high-performing building on behalf of the owner, one which reduces the extent of the renewable energy required.

S+A has used a variety of high-performing systems designs as we are careful to match the right system with the project-specific architecture and programming. A high-performing, decoupled, chilled beam system, for example, is not effective in a building with an average-performing envelope with operable windows.

When or why is “storage” an issue?

Andre: We hear, anecdotally, that the issue with solar panels is energy storage for when the sun is not shining. This goes back to what Lyle was discussing in terms of understanding the goals for the project. By most definitions, the electrical grid becomes the “battery,” with the on-site renewable energy effectively being stored there when not needed on the site, i.e. the feed-in tariff. The goal here is to offset the energy taken from the grid with energy stored on the grid. In other words, when the sun is not shining, the site uses this energy back from the grid. The DOE definition of ZEB actually considers the onsite renewable energy to be “exported” energy.

So, clearly, if there is no grid connection to export the renewable energy, storage becomes part of the solution for Net Zero. There are other energy-storage options, such as thermal storage, compressed air storage, and flywheel energy. It all comes down to the scale of the project. For most projects, batteries remain the most cost-effective energy storage solution, and today’s lithium-ion batteries are the new standard. Lithium-ion, by the way, are the same batteries currently used in electrical cars such as the Tesla.

Another issue with on-site energy storage is the spatial requirements. Centrally-distributed battery storage systems can take up considerable space within a building. Recent advancements in energy storage technology, however, has allowed for scalable battery storage systems that can store energy locally on a smaller scale. These scalable systems – the Tesla Powerwall, for example – which can be installed within existing spaces, bridge the gap in situations where we do not have a grid connection.

What approach is taken when designing geothermal systems?

Kevin: Successful geothermal design involves a thoughtful and methodical process to match the building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system requirements to the geothermal system’s capabilities. Part of the matching process also involves considering the requirements of the facilities group who is managing and controlling the building.

Often geothermal heat exchangers are designed as vertical borehole closed loop systems. This may have more to do with the installers’ experience and capability, instead of what is best suited for the geology at the site. Smith + Andersen has found that geothermal heat exchanger design can be optimized by gaining a thorough understanding of the site geology. Sometimes alternate geothermal installation techniques can be employed to save costs if the geological conditions are favorable. Taking advantage of favorable geological conditions can reduce the installation cost to ¼ of what conventional vertical borehole systems would cost.

Geothermal systems provide moderate temperature water supply – this means that the building HVAC systems have to be designed so that they can extract energy from the moderate temperature water supply. This is no easy task as most of the HVAC equipment readily available on the market is designed for high temperature water supply. However, there are a number of mechanical systems that will work well when mated with geothermal systems, but care and attention needs to be applied so that the occupied areas of the building can absorb the heating or cooling effect available. This requires an understanding of the temperature, flow and heat transfer characteristics of the terminal HVAC systems and the use of energy storage tanks to protect the primary energy supply systems (usually heat pumps or chillers).

By tracking and reviewing the energy consumption at all of the sites where we have employed geothermal systems, Smith + Andersen have proven that good system design can deliver excellent results. For the bulk of the systems employed, the carbon based fuel consumption and CO2 footprint has been nearly eliminated and the overall utility consumption and costs have been significantly reduced.

How is sustainability part of the culture at Smith + Andersen?

Lana: Earth Day is April 22, but at S+A we challenge ourselves to contribute to the transformation of a more sustainable society every day, not only through our designs but also through the way we operate. For example, by encouraging a paperless office and supporting environmental causes such as Forests Ontario and the Environmental Defense Fund. Principals and staff participate in community clean-up days during earth week and we raise funds to purchase and plant trees through our annual industry “Eco Jam”, where architects and other industry professions form rock bands for a benefit concert.  We are trying to instill the value beyond our own walls that sustainability starts with each and every one of us.

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Smith + Andersen (S+A) is a branded trademark owned by The Smith + Andersen Group and consists of several related companies including: Smith + Andersen (Vancouver), Smith + Andersen Falcon Engineering Ltd., Smith + Andersen (Calgary) Ltd., Smith + Andersen (Edmonton), Smith + Andersen (Winnipeg), Smith + Andersen (London), Smith and Andersen Consulting Engineering, S + A Footprint, and Smith + Andersen (Ottawa).

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