Our Insights

Engineering Approaches to Green Building Strategies

A Path to Sustainable Development

Green building strategies is a large and complex topic that can take many paths. Achieving a green building depends on what route you take to realize your sustainability objectives. In a world where regional and regulatory requirements and tax incentives are driving the greening of the built environment, the positive impact is important to measure from both a project perspective – and a human perspective.

In this Insight Article, we asked members of our Engineering team at NORR, and building sciences sister company Cion, to share practical views on green building practices. Specifically, we drill down on the principles that are driving the development of municipal planning, rating systems and corporate social responsibility, and how they are increasingly integrated into four key areas: decarbonization, resiliency, health & well-being and ecosystems & equity.

Decarbonization refers to the reduction and extraction of greenhouse gas emissions out of the operation of buildings and their supply chains. Beyond energy efficiency, decarbonization looks at the carbon intensity of fuel sources, ongoing commissioning, renewables and the carbon intensity of “cradle-to-cradle” attributes of individual specified products, which includes extraction, manufacturing and transportation emissions associated with their creation. By focusing on carbon reduction, the built environment is leveraging the greening of individual projects to yield positive global  results.

Improved energy performance and carbon outcomes are driven by the effective collaboration between architects, project stakeholders and all engineering disciplines.  Engineers play a crucial role in decarbonization beyond simply specifying low carbon intensity systems and equipment. The significance of integrative design process is crucial for decarbonization, as the equipment can only be decarbonized and right sized by pushing the thermal robustness of the architectural envelope first. By placing emphasis on the architecture to serve as a passive system, this enables ultra-efficient, all electric systems to become feasible – performatively and affordably – for projects, especially where net-zero energy and carbon legislation is taking hold.

Engineers are being challenged to think about decarbonization for both system design of new buildings and rehabilitation of existing buildings, adapting to the intensifying impact of climate change over time. Commissioning and testing services for new buildings are vital to ensure they perform as intended and meet the criteria for any rating or certification received. Ongoing testing becomes critical to ensure that as the building ages, it continues to meet its performance objectives. When any building system starts to fail, testing methods are used to identify and quantify the failure to inform appropriate remedial measures – before they become serious problems.

Whole building air leakage tests identify envelope performance issues which affect the amount of GHGs mechanical systems generate. Water leak tests address any penetrations which can lead to accelerated failure of system resiliency, enable mold growth and offer breeding grounds for pests affecting occupant health and well-being. Integrated systems testing (IST), corridor pressurization, energy and air quality audits are just a few of the types of tests that quantify the effectiveness of buildings’ sustainability performance. As building codes increasingly embed sustainability outcomes and more stringent performance targets, building owners, investors and managers must prioritize regular audits and testing.

Resiliency in the context of green building practices focuses on the ability of buildings and communities to withstand and recover from various environmental, social and economic challenges, including climate change, natural disasters, resource scarcity and socioeconomic disruptions. Green building mandates address resiliency by encouraging the use of flexible, durable building materials, design strategies that factor embodied carbon reductions, as well as the use, and reuse, of architectural components of the building fabric for their carbon and aesthetic value.

Engineers play an important role in designing resiliency into structures, which allows them to have a long useful life, able to accommodate many potential functions and changes over time. Utilizing structure-as-finish, for example, is a major way that structural systems, which encompass ~20% of the cost and embodied carbon of buildings, can be leveraged to promote biophilic aesthetics, embodied carbon reduction and define spaces for multiple uses over time. Passive design requires an increase of gross space (taller floor-to-floor heights and thicker walls/slabs), which increases the initial costs and carbon inputs for buildings; however, these impacts can be recouped over time by reducing operational carbon (through increased daylighting and natural ventilation), and reducing embodied carbon (reduced waste from renovation, increased flexibility, and the avoidance of finish materials over structural elements being expressed).

By promoting longevity, we also promote sustainability since structural elements are the longest-life components of buildings. This demonstrates the importance of structural engineering impacts upon a building’s carbon footprint and a building’s innate resilience. It is important to note that structure-as-finish requires practical considerations and associated limiting factors that should be discussed and weighed to inform decisions.

Health & Well-Being
On average, we spend 90% of our time indoors, so we need to design for people’s physical and mental well-being. Healthy buildings lead to increased cognitive function, higher productivity and better overall health.  The impact of building system design upon health and well-being is profound. Properly designed systems contribute to indoor air quality, thermal comfort, lighting, acoustics and overall safety – all of which are critical factors in human health.

Effective ventilation systems ensure the circulation of clean air, reducing the concentration of pollutants and preventing respiratory issues. Well-designed HVAC systems regulate temperature and humidity levels, enhancing comfort and minimizing the risk of heat-related illnesses or mold growth. Adequate natural light and appropriate artificial lighting systems positively affect mood, productivity and circadian rhythms, promoting better sleep patterns and mental well-being.

Furthermore, noise reduction measures mitigate stress and improve concentration, fostering a conducive environment for work, learning or relaxation. Enhanced safety features such as fire detection and suppression systems offer peace of mind and protection against potential hazards.

Ecosystems and Equity
If the built environment is decarbonized, resilient and healthy, then ecosystems will be biodiverse, minimize disruptions from natural disasters, and will sequester carbon. For equity, a similar built environment promotes access to nature and community amenities, reduces the impacts of emergency events upon life and property, and promotes economic parity by reducing the cost of commuting and overall operational costs of buildings.

Engineering has touchpoints across ecosystems, equity and the built environment. By sourcing an increasing percentage of energy from renewables, particularly onsite, projects can more predictably balance energy cost and access, while providing redundancy during outages for life safety services – with the added benefit of improved air quality. This requires strategic electrification of systems over time to achieve targets set forth by all levels of government from councils, provinces and municipalities.

By reducing urban heat, projects reduce their cooling costs in summer, when air quality is poorest and energy costs are highest, resulting in greater indoor and outdoor comfort – the best strategy for which being the introduction of vegetation to sites, roofs, and even walls. Such solutions have a myriad of other benefits, including increased building value, amenities for occupants, urban cooling and stormwater mitigation. They are successful when incorporating engineering solutions that consider the added weight upon buildings for these features, integration with site planning to manage runoff and durability, and even spatial provisions for access and maintenance to components and systems, including onsite renewables.

Green building programs and mandates have historically acknowledged the direct and indirect benefits that ecosystems and equity play in the built environment, holistically, through encouraging responsible land use and planning practices, promoting inclusive and accessible spaces, encouraging the development of community facilities and affordable housing, and even through encouraging workforce development and economic generation opportunities that keep wealth generated by projects within the communities where projects are located.

Start a conversation about your engineering path to a green building strategy.