Ask the Expert: Jason Manikel, Managing Principal and Green Practice Leader, Halsall Associates

We spoke to Jason Manikel, Managing Principal and Green Practice Leader, Halsall Associates, about his experience working with Halsall on building retrofits, the evolution of sustainability in Canada, and how his career evolved from mechanical engineer to green building leader.

1) Tell us about your career and how you ended up being involved in green building

Jason Manikel, Managing Principal and Green Practice Leader, Halsall Associates

I'd spent a few years working as a mechanical designer, and then when I was applying for a new job about ten years ago, the head of the company asked, "What do you know about this new LEED thing?" I didn't really know anything about it, but luckily my new company decided that it was to be a focus area for them and for me. That got me started in the right direction. I got the chance to work with some great people on some great projects in the early days. After moving to Halsall, I got to learn much more about how buildings really work. 

2) Halsall is a leader in sustainable building. What are a few of the green projects you've worked on that stand out most in your mind?

A few years back, I got the chance to work with an extremely passionate client – the Centre for Social Innovation. They had just acquired an old building and were figuring out how to renovate it to suit their needs. We worked with them to evaluate all their options for improving comfort and reducing energy consumption. I love the opportunity to interact directly with the people who'll own and occupy the buildings we work on – especially when they get as excited as I do about all the geeky engineering details. In the end, they got a high-performance building that they're very happy with.

Another project that stands out – in part because it's so recent, but also because it so well exemplifies the kind of work we deliver at Halsall – is the retro-commissioning of the Sun Life Financial Building at 150 King Street West in Toronto. Over the course of several months we spent a lot of time at the building, working with the operators to optimize every system in the building and squeeze out all the efficiency we can from their existing gear (instead of replacing it all with new stuff). The results have been great. The team on-site was very engaged, and they started saving energy almost immediately, exceeding their LEED EB:O&M targets ahead of schedule.

3) Given your experience and current specialty in greening existing buildings – what do you think are the biggest challenges to retrofitting an older building?

One challenge is that so many in the market seem to be focused mainly on that word you used, "retrofitting". Typically that's about big, expensive changes to the systems and equipment in a building, with long paybacks. There is a lot of energy to be saved by focusing on how the existing gear in a building is run (operations and commissioning, etc), as well as by considering how the occupants of the building interact with it and its systems (occupant engagement, etc.), without spending tons of money.

A common challenge when it does come to actual retrofits is creating links between the people who will pay for the project and those that pay the bills. In some buildings, that's within the same organization – asset managers and property managers, for example. In other buildings, it's about the landlord/tenant relationship. It sometimes takes new strategies (green leases, etc.) for good projects to work for all the stakeholders.

4) What would you say to someone who is considering retrofitting their building but isn't yet convinced that aiming for LEED certification is the right way to go?

Some of our clients are interested in reducing their operating costs to help their own bottom line. In those cases, we'll focus on energy and water savings projects and not worry about benchmarking systems like LEED.

But lots of building owners and managers need to demonstrate the quality of their building in ways that aren't easy to see – how they run their building, the policies they have in place, their indoor air quality, etc. LEED makes sense for anyone concerned with their building's competitiveness and the message they send to the market.

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

There are lots of ways our business will keep evolving, and I won't pretend to be able to predict all of them. But I think there are a couple of interesting things that seem likely in the short- to mid-term.

Mandatory building energy labeling or benchmarking and disclosure is coming to Canada. When it does, many more people will start paying attention to how much energy and water their building consumes, and there'll be huge new pressure on landlords to improve.

Building owners are increasingly pushing to build connections between the predicted performance of their new buildings and their actual performance, post-construction. It remains slow going, but as that momentum builds, more design teams will be inclined to see how their projects perform in real life, and the lessons they learn will be applied to their next projects. LEED is evolving in this direction, which will help.

Given how much of our business is about making complicated building automation systems work the way they were intended, it's a bit odd of me to say this, but it seems clear that even more sophisticated automation will be part of high performance in the near-term. All sorts of new real-time energy management and automated fault-detection and diagnostics tools are popping up all the time now. Getting them implemented effectively still takes a lot of work, but there's lots of promise in this area.

6) Is there anything you'd like to add about your areas of expertise that you think our audience would find useful?

Our industry is full of smart, passionate people who care about our planet's future. That's one thing I love about my work. But part of what has made Halsall's green building team so successful is how focused we are on our client's businesses. We can't force people to do the right thing just because we care and think it's important. What works is to find ways that your clients can be successful in what's most important to them, while doing the right thing for the planet at the same time.