Ask the Expert: Gordon Shymko talks about energy simulation and what he's learned in his 32-year career

Gordon F. Shymko
President, G. F. Shymko & Associates Inc.

Gordon F. Shymko is an award-winning engineering consultant with over 32 years of experience in advanced building design and energy and sustainability engineering. He has provided consulting services for new and retrofit/renovation projects from the conceptual planning stages down to the detailed design level, and his portfolio of projects represents several billion dollars in construction value. Project locations range from Whitehorse to Abu Dhabi. His achievements include the design facilitation and sustainability engineering of some of the largest and most complex LEED® projects in Canada to date.

1. Tell us about your career and how you came to be involved in the sustainability field.

I started my consulting engineering career in 1983 with a small, but highly innovative mechanical design firm in Winnipeg. I had never actually intended to pursue a career specifically in the building industry, but the owner and I immediately got along well, and I was fascinated by the opportunity.

Over the ensuing several years I was fortunate to be able to work on projects and initiatives that most young engineers can only dream of. During that period, the notion of sustainability was expanding beyond the energy-centric definition of the past, and my professional scope expanded with it. I left the company in 1991, and operated my own firm until early 1993, at which time I was offered the opportunity to establish and build the Energy and Environmental division of a prominent Vancouver-based mechanical and electrical consulting firm. After a brief period I became a Principal, and during my tenure with the company I was again fortunate to work on many prominent and innovative projects.

Moreover, I was afforded the opportunity to closely work with sustainability visionaries such as Dr. Ray Cole and Nils Larsson, and the close relationships that developed continue today. During that time I also managed a joint venture with a major Energy Performance Contracting company. That experience provided valuable knowledge and insights into that segment of the industry and opened doors to such opportunities as co-chairing and lead-authoring Volume III of the IPMVP, upon which the EAc5 M&V credits in LEED 1.0 and 2009 are based.

In early 1998, a number of events transpired, and I decided to reactivate my personal company and strike out on my own. Currently our services and activities include general sustainability consulting and planning, environmental rating system development, Integrated Design Process (IDP) facilitation, LEED consulting and coordination, energy simulation, Measurement & Verification, and Green Globes consulting and certification. Project size can be as small as a few thousand square feet, and our largest project to date is 2.7 million square feet (in progress).

2. You've worked on some very large and complex LEED projects. Can you touch on a couple, and what the experience was like?

An example of a large project would be the Calgary South Health Campus, an acute care hospital comprising 2.3 million square feet of conditioned space. Our primary role on that project was energy engineering and simulation. While the building systems were not unusual for a hospital, the sheer size of the project combined with the multiplicity of functional spaces was staggering. We conducted our energy modelling to a high degree of resolution, and the final model(s) included virtually every room in the building. In reality this was as much by necessity as by design since there were very few typical aspects to the floor layouts.

An example of a complex project would be the Life Sciences Centre at UBC. At 572,000 sq.ft of conditioned space I would not consider it large, but the functional areas included everything from lecture halls to teaching labs to research vivaria. There were also two large self-conditioning atria with advanced glazing systems. The HVAC systems in particular were far from typical, and we wrote a lot of DOE code/functions to model that building properly.

3. Are there any others that were unique or that stand out in your mind?

We are currently working on the Schulich School of Engineering expansion at the U of C. It is actually more infill than expansion, with complex boundary, HVAC, and envelope conditions. We are providing the LEED consulting as well as energy engineering and simulation. We are also in the early stages of the commercial/residential redevelopment of the old Vancouver central post office site. It is not only a massive project, but the environmental and energy performance goals are challenging, including energy self-sufficiency to the greatest extent practical. Our primary role on that project is energy engineering and simulation.

4. Your firm uses energy simulation as a dynamic design tool. What does this entail and why is this advantageous in green building design?

I have been involved in energy simulation for all of my career. I worked on the NRC building in Winnipeg in the 1980s, which at that time was modelled in DOE 1.1 using Fortran punch card decks for input on a Cyber "mainframe" computer. Using energy modelling as a design tool was necessary back then because we did not have the knowledge or experience to make advanced and informed design decisions any other way. Frankly, at that time buildings were designed largely based on myth and folklore. Unfortunately, to a very large degree that is still true.

The difference is that back then we were using energy simulation to question dogma and debunk design myths. Today energy modelling has unfortunately been mostly reduced to a "compliance" exercise. The building is designed (and often constructed), and then someone is retained to produce an after-the-fact energy model to demonstrate compliance. That may be a valid approach when the building systems are simple/mainstream and the design approaches are proven, and I will confess that a certain number of our projects are more compliance than design, particularly with repeat clients who are comfortable and satisfied with a certain design template. However, compliance modelling leaves no room or opportunity for innovation and evolution.

"With respect to building complexity, we strive for simplicity and elegance. Undue complexity inevitably results in higher capital cost and significantly increased performance and operational risk. Our guiding principle is that if the building is getting more complex and costly as the design proceeds, then we are doing something wrong."

Now, this is not to say that we don't do a lot of preliminary or concept modelling. It is quite the contrary. Between my two associates and myself, we collectively have over 75 years of energy modelling experience with hundreds of buildings of different types in every climatic/geographical extreme imaginable. Experience combined with first-principles analysis is usually sufficient enough to allow us to make the broad early/initial design decisions without having to resort to modelling what are essentially foregone conclusions.

This is particularly applicable to orientation and massing, as well as initial selection of HVAC configuration. Energy modelling is just a tool, and like any tool it can be used frivolously and/or incorrectly, or prudently and intelligently. Energy engineering is really the core service that we are trying to deliver. Occasionally we will conduct some amount of early modelling if we encounter a design condition or question that we are uncertain about, but generally our energy modelling comes online at some point during Design Development. At that juncture we are validating earlier decisions as well as providing detailed design support for issues such as final selection of glazing coatings, development of HVAC details and sequences, and confirming the efficacy of daylighting strategies and controls.

Moreover, we are assessing the overall effectiveness of the building systems and resultant performance from two perspectives: overall complexity, and capital cost. The latter has become the forgotten aspect and benefit of rigorous, design-based energy modelling. Specifically, while we are obviously concerned about the energy and functional performance of the project, we are also looking for unnecessary design redundancy, system oversizing and/or ineffectiveness, and system conflicts. All of this represents unnecessary capital expenditure. As a very simple example, with cooling capacity costing anywhere between $5000 and $10,000 per installed ton, reducing the building cooling plant by only 30 tons results in an immediate capital cost saving of between $150,000 and $300,000. Another very common example is external shading devices that are thermodynamically redundant and essentially ineffective when combined with a high quality spectrally-selective low-e glazing system. Yet, energy modelling is seldom conducted to a sufficient degree of rigor that these types of relationships and dynamics are identified.

With respect to building complexity, we strive for simplicity and elegance. Undue complexity inevitably results in higher capital cost and significantly increased performance and operational risk. Our guiding principle is that if the building is getting more complex and costly as the design proceeds, then we are doing something wrong.

5. What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced working on sustainable building projects?

While there are always technical issues, unfailingly the greatest challenge and the key to a truly successful project is the "process". I am fond of saying that the technical/engineering part of what we do is easy. The challenge is managing everything else, from design team relationships to the design process itself.

I was fortunate to work extensively with the NRCan C-2000 program in the late 1990s and early 2000. This program was directly responsible for defining and codifying the concept of the IDP. The relative success (or failure) of virtually every project that I have worked on can be directly linked to the extent to which an IDP was properly implemented. Indeed, our approach to energy engineering and modelling is based on IDP principles.

iiSBE Canada just completed a comprehensive Post-Occupancy Evaluation (POE) of a dozen prominent Canadian green buildings ( One of the key outcomes was that the success of a given project was a direct function of the extent to which an IDP had been utilized.

6. Where do you see the future of green building headed in the near future and/or the more long-term future?

I believe that it is time for the industry to take a bit of a pause and take frank stock of its outcomes to date. Specifically, we have all been producing ostensibly green buildings for decades, and blithely assuming that they are performing as intended. Recent work by iiSBE and other has proven that assumption to be dangerously naïve.

There is usually a clear performance gap between projected performance, potential to perform, and actual performance. Sometimes the gap is positive, but more often it is negative. At present there is no performance feedback loop, which is puzzling given that we are all professionals and should understand that good design of any system requires a feedback mechanism. What are we doing right? What are we doing wrong? And why? The lofty greenhouse reduction targets that are commonly touted are meaningless if we do not validate the performance of our buildings.