OPINION | The Need to Face How Our Building Designs Are Truly Performing
My research into Clayton Heights Community Centre’s post-completion energy review was somewhat opportunistic—if it weren’t for Introba’s Impact Fund, this would have been much harder to carry out. For most of my completed projects, I try to visit at least a couple of times in the years following completion to see how they operate. On these brief and informal visits, I usually chat with some of the permanent occupants about their experiences and satisfaction with the building. This kind of walk-through survey can provide helpful feedback regarding comfort but rarely provides more than a snapshot. It makes me feel good as a professional but doesn’t really help me to design my next projects better.
So why investigate the actual performance of this specific building? There were three reasons why I chose Clayton Heights and applied to the Impact Fund program to investigate how the building is performing. The first reason was that Clayton Heights is a high-profile, community-centric project with ambitious Passive House certification requirements. Investigating how it is performing had, therefore, a double edge aspect to it: either we would find that the building is performing to the level for which we had designed it and it would be a complete success; or it is not, and the learnings could be huge. Of course, the reality sits within.
The second reason comes from a long-standing frustration that I have with building design and consultancy in general: the lack of transparency over lessons learned (if we even get to this point) and the lack of publicly available hard data on the performance of individual buildings’ systems – particularly those which are leading edge. I talk about this in greater detail in the introduction of the research study, so I won’t go to town here. Still, I find it staggering how our industry is set up to repeatedly make the same mistakes (sometimes without knowing it!). As designers, we are uniquely positioned to help address a climate crisis. Yet, for the sake of maintaining appearances, we cannot help out our competitors or admit what we could do differently next time.
While we look to break tradition and publish our lessons learned on Clayton, I admit it’s easier to do so when you have a Passive House building performing at very low energy levels and close to its design targets – it was a relief, I must confess. This has been an interesting exercise in vulnerability, and I now understand a bit better the hurdles behind sharing publicly lessons learned and hopefully can address them better in my future projects.
The third reason for choosing Clayton is my long-time obsession with natural ventilation (NV). NV has considerable potential in terms of energy savings and health benefits, but there is too little uptake in North America for cultural reasons. I designed Clayton Height’s mixed-mode ventilation system (half mechanical, half NV) with the team in Vancouver, so it was the perfect opportunity to explore how the system was operating. What I find fascinating from a performance perspective is that NV was once the system for keeping buildings comfortable during summer. In contrast, now, because of wildfire smoke and extreme heat events, it tends to be the healthy optional complement to a mechanical system that provides peak day certainty. This means there is even greater potential for these systems not to be used effectively; anecdotally, this is exactly what happens on many mixed-mode projects. It turns out that Clayton is no exception. So, from a learning, and personal development perspective, this was a chance to dial into why we aren’t getting the most out of NV on some projects. If I can help Introba’s new mixed-mode systems and, perhaps, other designers, this feels like energy well spent.
I wish we could visit all buildings we design and explore in detail their performance to help close the current performance gap. Perhaps in the future, digital tools will be an opportunity to gather data more easily and faster–something that I know Introba is also exploring.
In this short report, we dive deep into a post-completion energy evaluation of Clayton Community Centre, reflecting on learnings after going on-site to measure the performance of a Passive House-certified community center in Canada.
This study explores the performance gaps through the tools and construction methods used as well as ongoing building performance.
What lessons learned from this Passive House success story can help us improve our design strategy?
As a mechanical engineer specializing in naturally ventilated, mixed-mode, and daylit projects in the United Kingdom and North America, Thomas focuses on climate resilience and agile, flexible systems to achieve longevity and sustainability. His focus on improved health in high-quality architectural schemes has transformed user experience in schools, offices, universities, dance studios, labs, historic and residential buildings. Thomas’ multidisciplinary training and experience include mechanical and electrical design, computational thermal and fluids modeling, and site-wide energy analysis.
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