As part of our series featuring CaGBC’s Zero Carbon Building (ZCB) pilot projects, we spoke with East Port Properties President Judy Wall. Judy has been working in the real estate industry for three decades, with her team’s dedication to sustainability and innovation going all the way back to its work with Purdy’s Wharf, the first commercial building in North America to use sea water for cooling.
Judy and the East Port team are continuing their green building involvement with the development of the Wilkinson Project, a series of multi-tenant warehouses in Dartmouth, N.S. designed to have net-zero heating energy usage.
She discussed with CaGBC some strategies for building projects that are both operationally efficient and cost-effective, and the business opportunities sustainable developments can bring to the table.
1. Tell us briefly about yourself and how you how you came to work on sustainable/green building projects.
I have been working in the real estate industry since 1987, and learned about the benefits of an efficient operating system under the tutelage of the two ex-naval engineers who worked on the conceptual design of the first seawater system used for the primary cooling of an office building in North America at Purdy’s Wharf. The first lesson was that innovation does not always have to mean something completely new – it can simply be an adaptation of an existing idea used in a new environment. Sea-water cooling is used in marine vessels all the time; they look at the proximity of the Halifax Harbour to the city and ask, “Why wouldn’t the same theory work for buildings?” The simplicity of the system they designed sparked an interest for me, and learning about building and operating efficient real estate has sustained this interest for the past 30 years.
2. You are working on one of Canada’s first zero carbon building projects for the CaGBC Zero Carbon Building Pilot Program. How did you get involved in this? Why are you working on this project?
East Port Properties is a small management company, in a small market compared to the other major cities in Canada, but that has never stopped us from thinking we could be the best at what we do, so we are always looking for new ways to add value to our development and management of real estate. We figured out how to develop, build, lease and operate the first LEED certified multi-tenant warehouse in Halifax in 2008, and then did so five more times in Halifax and in Mount Pearl, N.L. over the next six years. In the same timeframe, we also developed and built a LEED certified suburban office building in Halifax and the first LEED Gold Certified office building in St. John’s, N.L. When we decided to move forward with the Wilkinson Project, the first question was: “How are we going to make these warehouses even better?”
With all the information we had gathered from operating both the warehouses and office buildings, we wanted to apply and improve that knowledge, and when the opportunity arose to have a certified zero carbon building through the CaGBC, we called and made a case to be included in the pilot project. Our pitch was that despite the fact that the industrial asset class represents millions of square feet in Canada, and many single-purpose buildings are LEED certified, the vast majority have been completely off the radar when it comes to any kind of certification because of the financial structure of the leases that exist in this asset class.
3. Tell us a bit more about the key features of the project and what you will do to meet the CaGBC ZCB requirements.
The most ambitious aspect of the project is, in fact, figuring out how to make the project financially competitive. The typical warehouse is built by the owner, but the cost of operations falls to the user. Traditionally, financial and design resources being spent on how to provide energy-efficient shells have been limited, in order to provide the lowest-cost product. Also, quite often when it is developed we don’t know what the use will be – industrial buildings can have many users over their life cycle. As such, we had to determine what aspects we could take control of while still keeping the product cost-competitive.
We knew from monitoring and analyzing previous LEED certified warehouses that there were a few basic elements that had the most impact on reducing energy use: reduced infiltration through better insulation values, efficient heating systems, and automated controls to reduce dependence on human intervention to operate the system. We started with the nature of a concrete tilt-up building – the concrete floor presents a massive opportunity for thermal storage – and decided to heat the perimeter with in-floor radiant heat. The heat source is air-to-water heat pumps, with a natural gas condensing boiler for peak demand. Tilt-up concrete affords the opportunity for increased insulation value in the sandwich panel exterior walls, and we also upgraded the insulation value of the roof.
Continuing with the theory that by reducing the air infiltration into the building, we are able to reduce the resources necessary to heat it, we decided to use vertical-storing dock levellers. This product is well-known in refrigerated warehouses for keeping cold air in the building, but is not usually considered for keeping cold drafts out of the building. Then we added scheduled heat recovery ventilation, daylight-harvesting skylights and high bay windows, and sensor-controlled LED lighting. We also added a rooftop solar PV system sized to offset the costs associated with operating these base-building controlled systems. Finally, a digital control system will monitor and control the heating and ventilation system, to ensure that heat is provided only where and when needed, and to limit heating in the associated zone when a bay door is open, through floor sensors and relays on the overhead doors.
4. What have you learned so far working on a zero carbon project and with CaGBC? Have you encountered any challenges?
The most interesting aspect has been learning how to continually challenge past experience and intuition – to take the actual operating information we have gathered over the past several decades and question the ”we always do it this way because it works” attitude. We typically take a team approach to design, and this time we heightened that approach by challenging all the consultants, engineers and builders to consider a different way. And once you present a challenge, if you have the right team, they cannot help but respond.
We also have the challenge of local electricity emissions incentivizing on-site fossil use, and we currently have to work within the restrictions of the local utility for how much on-site energy we can provide to the grid, as we will be using the grid for storage until we hopefully see technological advances in storage options in the near future. The other significant challenge has been existing energy modelling software – we have years of recorded energy use and, by extrapolation, rates of infiltration from several existing building operations, but the energy model requires prescriptive inputs which don’t always align with what we have recorded.
5. How does working on net zero/zero carbon differ from LEED projects? How is it the same?
I have now worked on eight LEED projects, with another two pending certification. Working on this zero carbon pilot project has turned the process around for me. Rather than starting with a list of requirements, we started at the end and worked backwards to achieve our goal. This has helped open the door to new approaches to achieving that goal. We started this project by looking at what we have already achieved in operating efficiency, and then picking at what pieces were left on the table for increasing those efficiencies.
6. Would you like to add anything else?
In navigating the requirements of a zero carbon pilot project, it became clearer to me what the challenges were. A real estate professional is required to become a quasi-expert in everyone else’s business, because we provide the foundation for that business. If the building does not assist – and far worse, if it impedes the operation of a business – it loses its value. However, we do not have any control in what that business does or how it is operated. That realization means that we should focus on and be certified on what we can actually control.
Our project is aiming for net-zero heating energy because it encourages us to build and operate a more sustainable shell. If we are required to anticipate the use and make accommodations to mitigate those carbon emissions as well, the knee-jerk reaction is, “We can’t control what happens inside the box, so what’s the point of building a better box?” By streamlining the task, we encourage more focused and innovative thinking. And at the end of the process, we develop more valuable assets, because we can never forget our duty to the owners and investors who fund the innovations that work towards achieving the goal of sustainable progress (and with the increased level of investment in real estate, if you have a pension or any kind of registered retirement savings plan, chances are you are an investor in one of the many job sites you see on your way to work each day).