Ask the Expert: Christian Cianfrone talks about his passion for building better through energy modeling



Christian Cianfrone, Principal and Building Energy Practice Lead at Morrison Hershfield

This month we spoke to Christian Cianfrone, Principal and Building Energy Practice Lead at Morrison Hershfield. He is also a member of both USGBC and CaGBC Technical Advisory Groups (TAGs), and he has taught LEED education as an instructor at a number of institutions including Centennial College, the University of British Columbia, University of Toronto, and Humber College.

1. Tell us a bit about your career and how you ended up being involved in sustainability and green building?

In my final year of undergrad, I joined the Solar Decathlon team at Cornell University and participated in the second Solar Decathlon competition put on by the U.S. Department of Energy. The competition involved designing and building a fully functioning, self-sufficient solar house. My role was to help develop the energy and comfort systems of the house through computer modeling. I was hooked. Through graduate school up until today, I have been focusing on the use of simulation tools to inform smart and more sustainable building design.

2. What does your work entail in your current position with Morrison Hershfield?

I support our energy modeling team across the company, ranging from business development, training, research and development, and project technical support. I'm also lucky enough to have the opportunity to develop and deliver green building educational content through academic institutions, the CaGBC and other industry partners.

3. Are there any green projects you've worked on that stand out in your mind?

We do a lot of work for an architect in the north, whose designs are "green" by necessity rather than publicity. On a recent conceptual design project, we looked at the possibility of both an office building and a maintenance facility being between 50 and 80 per cent better than the NECB 2011. Here's what I discovered – when everybody is motivated, 50 per cent savings is fairly easy to achieve. But to get to 80 per cent savings, you had to think. That was the fun part.


“Participating in the TAGs helps keep me focused on the bigger picture of why we are in this business – to build better buildings.”



4. You focus a lot on using energy simulation tools. How has the technology evolved in the last five years?

Providing quick feedback to project teams early in design is critical for improving a building's energy performance. However, developing reliable energy models quickly has been a big industry challenge. Software companies have tried to respond by developing tools that give instant answers. The problem is that energy models are as complex as the buildings they mimic; their energy use cannot be described by three simple key strokes… not reliably, anyway.

Instead of oversimplifying the problem, I would like to see software companies develop more customizable tools to facilitate an energy modeler's ability to improve his or her workflow. This is already happening in the fringes by researchers and enthusiasts. In fact, Morrison Hershfield's energy modeling success has largely been a result of moving over to more open source programs, allowing us to develop our own suite of tools that suit our needs and our client's needs better and faster.

I think this is where the industry is headed – a good energy modeler will also have to be part computer programmer! But ultimately, despite the technology, the key to a good energy modeler is his or her expertise on building physics and building energy efficiency. At the end of the day, the recommendations around energy efficiency that are presented to a design team are coming from a human, not a computer.

5. You are on CaGBC and USGBC LEED Technical Advisory Groups. What have you learned by working with green building professionals in both countries on the TAGs?

When I first joined the CaGBC TAG, I developed a whole new appreciation for LEED. I was exposed to the passion and expertise of the people behind the product, and it elevated the meaning of LEED for me.

In an industry where it's sometimes easy to lose focus of the bigger picture because of project budgets and schedules, I'm always re-motivated after engaging in challenging discussions with my TAG colleagues every other week. Participating in the TAGs helps keep me focused on the bigger picture of why we are in this business – to build better buildings.

6. Where do you think the future of green building is headed in the immediate or more long-term future?

I think the formula is quite simple. If economics and policy support the need for green buildings, then the future looks good. But I think we can get creative with the economic part – it's not just about energy paybacks. The marketing value of the green building brand can be enormous. And if we can do a better job at quantifying the economic benefit of the improved human experience as a result of green buildings, that will also go a long way.