Ask the Expert: Joe Stano, Partner, Kane Consulting

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

Joe Stano, Partner, Kane Consulting

When I applied for university, I didn’t really have a clue what I wanted to do career-wise. I heard that engineering trained you how to solve problems and I liked chemistry so studying chemical engineering was where I started. I began taking more courses in process controls, chemical hydrogeology and enhanced oil recovery techniques. I know enhanced oil recovery sounds weird but this was actually a course that I remember as training me and giving me some of the skills that prepared me for my first job after graduation.

My first full-time engineering job was working with an environmental consulting company designing and operating in-situ remediation systems. Basically, we would drill wells in the ground of contaminated sites and then inject air and extract vapours and water to clean the soil and groundwater, with appropriate treatment for any extracted water and vapours. This was very interesting on many different levels because it taught me how different soils responded and I was able to be involved in the subsequent civil, mechanical, and electrical tendering and troubleshooting. In addition, seeing a site go from having high contamination levels to meeting regulatory standards was pretty rewarding. That being said, I was left feeling that my job was on the reactionary side and I wanted to do something that was more on the proactive side –preventing the waste from happening in the first place.

My manager at the time, who knew me pretty well, handed me an article on industrial ecology and said: “Read this, I think it’s up your alley.” The idea being to study material and energy flows to get companies to work in a manner and develop relationships that facilitate resource exchange and minimize waste – similar to how energy cascades through the food web in mature ecosystems. I was hooked and back to school I went to pursue this for my Masters in Engineering. During my studies, I was reading a lot of different sustainability related literature and found that the green building movement was one area that seemed to be making headway and gaining traction. I had been building tools to facilitate infrastructure planning using chemical process optimization techniques and GIS, and green building fit right into my line of thinking.

From there I began working as a member of the LEED team at the CaGBC. I think that one of the best things about working on the LEED team was getting to meet and having access to speak with so many knowledgeable people in the industry. Whenever I had a question, there were experts from all over the country that could provide their advice – it was awesome. I learned a lot about the different rating systems and how the CaGBC committees operate. I had the great opportunity to be the senior coordinator for the Canadian adaptation of LEED EB: O&M and then to manage the CaGBC’s GREENUP program. After getting to work on the development and administration of these great programs, I was interested to get out into the field and work on some projects.

That led me to Kane Consulting. Dan Roberts started the company primarily doing LEED consulting. We had talked about it and he said: “I’m busy and I think we can do more work.” That was in 2010. Now we have a team of eight people working on LEED project management, building commissioning, measurement and verification, building energy audits, carbon accounting and other sustainability related projects. We have a lot of fun and work on great projects; I feel lucky.

2. You’ve worked in environmental consulting and green building for over 12 years. Of all that time – what are the things that most stick out in your mind?

I have really liked working on a lot of projects, but I can’t say that there is any one project that stands out. What stands out more to me are the people I have worked with. I really get a kick out of seeing perspectives change. I have walked into construction site meetings and just been yelled at right off the bat. Sometimes people are just busy trying to build a building and LEED is still out of their comfort zone, so when I start explaining what we are doing with LEED and the documentation we need, they get their backs up. But with time, some of the loudest LEED opponents in these meetings have turned into the most excited and strongest supporters. I’ve had many contractors who originally were skeptical come back and tell me how they love not using smelly paints or want to give me a tour around every detail of their ductwork to show me how well it is sealed up. They really take ownership and even start telling other people on site to make sure they were cleaning up after themselves and keeping the site tidy.

I’ve also had a lot of fun seeing how excited and passionate people get. On the existing building side, I had one building where I went in and explained to the operator that we needed to test the outdoor air to see how much was flowing to the different parts of the building. He got so excited – “I’ve wanted to do this for years but never really had a reason!” We then proceeded with all the different aspects of LEED EB: O&M and he was so pumped to be taking water readings, counting fixtures, figuring out why equipment wasn’t running the way it should and making it work right, and talking to people in the building to make sure they were comfortable. He was a wealth of knowledge and knowing that he was working on getting the building certified seemed to make him so happy.

3. What have you learned most working on LEED projects? Any advice you would convey to other project teams?

I’ve learned that we need to really keep in mind who will be operating the building. I’ve seen various buildings designed with complicated systems that are then run by people who don’t have the knowledge required to operate them in a way that capitalizes on the original investment. The buildings are being designed with various controls and equipment that are intended to operate in a way to maximize energy efficiency and provide reliable occupant comfort, and often there is a premium paid up front for higher efficiency equipment and additional controls. Sometimes what ends up happening is that controls and alarms get overridden and the building ends up performing the same way it would have performed had less efficient equipment installed. The downside to this is that it gives the perception that green buildings don’t work. So in this regard, I would advise that designers really work to understand who exactly will be operating the building and either have them involved throughout the design process and make sure that they are adequately trained or else make the design as efficient as possible within the operational constraints.

Another thing I have learned is to work hard up front to understand the team’s objectives. I think this applies to any project management role. We always hear about costs, so if budgets are the prime concern, frame the goal so that you can make the building as green as possible within your project budget. By doing the work up front, we can maintain focus on our goals throughout the project. I have found that this helps to streamline the whole LEED process. That being said, I also find it helpful to have a back up plan, because things inevitably come up during the course of the project.

4. You were very involved in the CaGBC early on, and you still sit on the LEED TAG for Water. How have you seen CaGBC and green building evolve throughout this time?

It all seems to have grown. I remember back in 2007 being one of two people who were coordinating all the LEED Canada reviews and CIRs. The LEED team at the CaGBC has grown and is much bigger than that now, which speaks to the market adoption of LEED. Now there are more then 2,600 LEED certified projects in Canada and we are seeing green building courses offered at universities and colleges, various levels of government that have their own green building requirements, and companies that include green buildings as a component of their corporate social responsibilities. (Note that although LEED and green building are much more prevalent, I still get called the “LEEDs guy” a lot….).

In terms of the CaGBC and LEED, I have seen a lot more alignment with the USGBC’s rating system in the more recent Canadian adaptations of LEED as compared to previous versions. I think this makes sense in terms of the similarities in building construction and operations practices. I was in D.C. this past November at Greenbuild speaking to various colleagues from the U.S. and it became clear to me that we all face the same challenges and our approaches to technical implementation are pretty much the same.

In terms of the evolution of green buildings, I think that people are now comfortable with the idea of green buildings and leaders are pushing for more aggressive targets (e.g., Living Buildings and Net Zero and PassiveHaus for energy). That being said, I still think we are in the early stages of creating good transitions from construction to operation in order to fully realize the benefits of green building construction. My sense is that people are starting to understand this and are working to create feedback loops to designers, operations staff and owners.

Rating systems like LEED O&M and BOMA Best focus on building operations and the operational components of the Living Building Challenge provide a mechanism for creating these feedback loops. Energy benchmarking provides a similar way of tracking performance and over the years I have seen many different programs set up around benchmarking. What I am seeing now is a push to standardize the way that people are benchmarking across the country and NRCan’s adaptation of the USEPA’s Energy Star Portfolio Manager seems to be the tool that people are pushing for. I will be very interested to see how this evolves over time. 

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

I get the impression that we will see more technology used to facilitate behaviour-based building response to try and optimize for energy efficiency and occupant comfort. Things like learning algorithms integrated with location software on smart phones will be used to try and enhance the building occupant experience in commercial office buildings. I think we are seeing preliminary movement in this area in things like the Nest learning thermostat.

Inevitably, there is going to need to be more headway made in the existing residential sector. For multi-unit residential, Energy Star Portfolio Manager has a multi-family benchmarking tool. This is relatively new, and obtaining whole building energy data from multiple owners is likely to be challenging, but it is a start. For existing single-family homes, that’s an even tougher nut to crack – I don’t see how we will do it unless energy prices change.

In the long term I think that green building construction will be codified so it is just plain building construction and the focus will be based purely on actual performance based metrics.

6. Anything else you’d like to add?

I recently participated in a workshop on LEED Lab. It is essentially an interdisciplinary laboratory course that focuses on getting students working with consultants, professors, and campus operations on various aspects of LEED O&M. I think that all universities and colleges should check this out – it would give students a great opportunity to get a working knowledge of the different aspects of LEED O&M, and would give the university a way of assessing their current building stock.