Ask the Expert: Christian Cianfrone

Winner of the 2022 CAGBC Award for Technical Expertise

CAGBC Staff on October 21, 2022

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Currently Director of Decarbonization at EllisDon, Christian Cianfrone is a CAGBC Award winner. He received the 2022 Ed Lim Technical Expertise Volunteer award which is presented to an individual who has generously dedicated considerable time and expertise in an advisory capacity to advance green building in Canada.

Christian is a mechanical engineer who brings expertise in low energy design to his various projects and committee posts. He is a founding member of CAGBC’s Zero Carbon Steering Committee and former member of CAGBC and USGBC’s Energy and Engineering Technical Advisory Groups. Christian has helped develop and deliver several key educational courses for CAGBC related to the topics of LEED documentation, as well as the NECB and how it intersects with the LEED rating system. In addition to his work with CAGBC, Christian has sat on the Climate Change Mitigation Committee of the City of Calgary, contributed to developing the BC Energy Step Code and the Toronto Green Standard. In this conversation, he shares his engagement with key industry working groups and shifting to holistic project solutions that facilitate an organization’s low-energy design.

Tell us about your career and how you came to occupy your current role with EllisDon. 

My first job out of grad school was as an energy modeller for a small firm, and despite my best efforts to branch out into other areas of sustainability, I kept getting sucked into taking on energy related roles. In hindsight, I’m glad it worked out that way. After a decade building up an energy practice with one of the larger firms, I decided to try my hand leading a non-profit focused on accelerating zero emissions buildings in Vancouver. Around the same time, I also co-founded a software company called OPEN Technologies, with the aim of leveraging data and technology solutions to help decision makers make pro climate decisions with confidence. I’m grateful to still be working with both of those organizations today through advisory and board roles.

What eventually led me to EllisDon was a desire to contribute my technical knowledge to an organization that had a culture and influence in the market that could make meaningful change. My role as Director of Decarbonization covers two main areas. The first is around supporting our existing project teams and their clients to effectively plan and implement carbon reductions. We, like many of our clients, have committed to aggressive GHG emissions targets. And to support that commitment, we are bringing low-carbon expertise to as many projects as possible. I’m also focused on the existing building market to help our clients strategically decarbonize their buildings over time. There’s a lot of exciting stuff we’re working on in this space, which you’ll see more about in the near future.

CAGBC Award for Technical Expertise 2022 is Christian Cianfrone
This year’s winner of the Ed Lim Technical Expertise Award is Christian Cianfrone from EllisDon.
You served on CAGBC’s Zero Carbon Steering Committee and CAGBC’s Energy and Engineering Technical Advisory Group. Tell us how your volunteer involvement helped shape your professional development. 

There are two very clear and important outcomes for me that have resulted from spending over 13 years on CAGBC committees. The first is just around how it supported my technical development. Although I convinced someone that I had plenty of experience when I first joined the Energy and Engineering TAG, I was probably the most junior person on the committee by a long shot. If I was going to save myself embarrassment in front of these industry leaders, I had to make sure that if I expressed a technical opinion or made a recommendation, it had better be defensible. This drove me to really dive deep into the subject matter, question assumptions, review and re-review my technical positions and critically assess different perspectives.

The second outcome was around learning the value of advancing an agenda rather than pushing through your own specific point of view. The CAGBC committees are filled almost exclusively with individuals who are passionate about advancing sustainability in the built environment. Whenever there is debate, it is never about the outcome, but rather how to get there. When you’re working in a group where the members have shared values and mutual respect, you can get a lot of positive things done.

What emerging trends do you see in the green building sector that will have the greatest effect on reducing the sector’s overall emissions?

We are finally seeing a clear consensus on what buildings need to achieve. There is finally little debate about what the right target is – it’s zero carbon. This has led to government and organizational commitments towards increasingly rapid net-zero targets, which appear to be based on a changed paradigm from “we will do all sustainability that has a payback” to “we must decarbonize our assets to manage our climate, financial and reputational risk”. This clarity is leading to tangible shifts in the industry – all the way from project requirements at the RFP stage down to technology advancements at the equipment product level.

While there is still a disconnect between those high-level climate commitments at the organizational level and the individual project level, it’s a positive step forward. We still need to move away from isolating “zero carbon” specific solutions and their paybacks and move towards an environment where zero carbon outcomes are fixed, and project teams can optimize holistic project solutions that integrate all of the project’s goals within an overall total cost of asset ownership.

What advice do you have for other professionals looking to join one of CAGBC’s various Technical Advisory Groups? 

Be the best at what you do and then join a committee and use that knowledge to advance not just your own firm’s projects, but the industry as a whole.

You were recently honored with the 2022 CAGBC Award for Technical Expertise. What does this recognition mean to you?

It kind of feels like cheating. I love to nerd out on energy and carbon, so committee meetings are my idea of a good time.

After receiving the award, I received a note from an EllisDon colleague who I hadn’t previously met. He was recalling work he had done with Ed Lim years ago, reflecting on Ed as “a terrific guy, extremely smart, and with a keen business sense.” That connection led me to find out more about Ed, who donated a tremendous amount of time to the organization over the years. I don’t think I come anywhere close to the volunteer effort from Ed and others like him that are critical to helping organizations like the CAGBC fulfill their mission. My reflection on that point – for me and for everyone else out there – is to keep putting your hand up for volunteer opportunities that support our clean future, whether it’s within the organization you work for or an external one.