Canada has extreme weather events and it seems to be somewhat continuous over the past couple of years. Whether it’s heat waves, fires, floods, or tornadoes, the intensity of these events has become increasingly more detrimental to human life, according to insurance companies and climate researchers.
A team of 27 scientists from the World Weather Attribution initiative concluded that the northwestern heat dome last June killed several hundred and set an all-time temperature record of 49.6 C in the village of Lytton, B.C. Shortly after the record was set, the town was destroyed by a wildfire.
Low-carbon municipal buildings
“From the strength of the storms over the past few years, you can certainly see the effect of climate change coming in,” says Scott Quinn, director of engineering for the County of Kings in Nova Scotia. “Intense rainstorms, more heat warnings and even droughts in parts of Nova Scotia that we’ve never experienced before. Our apple orchards are being attacked by pests, and now we’re seeing ticks (that carry Lime Disease). They were not an issue in the past, but they’ve exploded in the last few years.”
Quinn and Sean Veldhoven, facility manager of the municipal building, are coming into their first winter with a new 7,000-sq. ft. net zero engineering and public works operation centre. It is heated and cooled via a VRF heat pump system and some geothermal for the office part of the building. Rooftop and adjacent ground-mounted solar arrays of 225 and 135 panels respectively supply more than 100 per cent of the power needed for the structure. A heat recovery ventilator and high-efficiency envelope cut energy use by 31 per cent to help make this possible.
Any surplus power can be used as the county continues to electrify its ground fleet. At the moment, it is operating a few hybrids, but the plan is to electrify about 20 county vehicles.
The design for the new mechanical system has been refined from a previous project three years ago, when they built a 22,000-sq. ft. office building equipped with HRVs, mini-splits and some geothermal. “For that one, we have yet to turn on the backup furnace. It’s working great and saving us money.” An idea of the savings can be estimated from an old 50,000-sq. ft. property that costs about $80,000 each year for oil and about $72,000 for electricity for the boiler and other equipment. Projecting on a square foot basis, the new buildings are likely saving the county about $82,000 each year.
The federal government has supported these decarbonization initiatives (and feasibility studies) by underwriting the Federation of Canadian Municipalities Green Municipal Fund, which provided the county with almost $3 million in low-interest loans and grants.
Retrofits that just made sense
As the cost of building materials increases and embodied carbon appears more often on the radar of policy planners and changemakers, gutting and retrofitting old buildings is now more often a rational choice, than levelling them and starting over. Canada needs more deep retrofits, according to Lorrie Rand, sustainability specialist at Habit Studio, a design services company.
“We have sort of declared we won’t do projects that are not sustainable. We thought it might stop some clients from coming to us, but our business has only increased. Five years ago, I would bring up Passive House with clients. But now I’m usually not the first to mention it. Nova Scotia is a progressive place and now clients ask me about it. They want to do the right thing and they want to keep energy bills low,” explained Rand in a phone interview.
To accommodate the growth of the company, Habit Studio has purchased a bigger building for their own offices in downtown Halifax near the harbour. “We did not make the highest offer, but we were the only bidder that said we would not knock it flat. That was part of the reason we were lucky and got the building.”
At first glance, it seems unsalvageable, but on closer inspection, the building lives up to the realtor cliché of having good bones with solid timber, stone construction, and some charming antique touches. The plan is to add as much insulation as possible in a small structure and upgrade to modern wooden framed windows.
Intello smart vapour barrier will help minimize energy losses while moving moisture out of insulation cavities and into the conditioned space, where HVAC equipment can manage it. The small three-story building will be heated with air-source heat pumps, but possibly not a heat pump water heater. “The calculations showed that a tankless solution might be better in this case.”
Some of the mechanicals are still being finalized, and Rand is considering adding some solar. We will have to do a follow-up report on this project once it is completed and photographed, and once it features Habit Studio’s trademark beautiful interior finishing detail.
Small-town budget management
Like the County of Kings project already described, another small government in Nova Scotia has made the numbers work for low-carbon buildings and solar. The town of Argyle at the southern end of the province not only saves operating costs through energy efficiency and on-site solar but is deriving revenue from its investment in a separate community solar project.
Alan Muise, chief administrative officer, explains that its new 8,200-sq. ft. administration building was designed with a tight envelope and modern windows for low energy consumption. When an on-site solar array and VRF heat pump system were added, the expectation was that the building would save $27,000 per year. In the first summer, it has already saved about $16,000. With inflation included in the calculations, the new building might save a total of $3.2 million over 30 years, according to Muise.
Again, in this case, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities helped with up-front financing and grants. Although that only covered about half the cost, this frugal little municipality with a population of 7,900 people was able to finance the rest of the building from its ongoing surplus.
“It felt irresponsible to design our new building with oil heating. This is not just about being positive for the environment; it is also a cost-saving opportunity.” The project was presented to the townspeople and 89 per cent voted in favour of proceeding.
“The economics matter because we’re a small town and we need to find ways to fund services without raising taxes,” says Muise. “We knew the solar would be beneficial because we have experience with renewables investments.” He’s talking about the town’s partnership in a Wellington, Nova Scotia solar project that pays back at the rate of $55,000 each year. “We will recover our investment after only six years and after that, it will provide surplus revenue for Argyle.”
It looks like although climate change is resulting in devastating extreme weather and damaging storm surges, it can also create a positive wave of economically beneficial clean energy projects in places like Nova Scotia, where they are needed.