Ask the Expert: Eric Chisholm

Member Profiles

Eric Chisholm has been providing strategic direction and technical solutions to sustainability and energy management for over 15 years. He is a Principal and co-founder of Purpose Building, prior to which he served in the role of Manager of National Energy Performance, Sustainability & Energy for an engineering consulting group. His experience delivering carbon reduction strategies, portfolio planning, energy audits, retro-commissioning, and LEED certification has supported hundreds of individual properties across Canada and portfolios representing tens of thousands of properties. Eric was named an Emerging Leader in Canada’s 2016 Clean50. In this interview, he provides an industry overview and insights on the latest CAGBC initiatives and events.

What was your motivation to start Purpose Building?

I was getting impatient at the slow pace of sustainability progress I was seeing. I eventually came to realize that I was a part of that failure and needed to change. That’s when my co-founders and I started Purpose Building to accelerate real estate to planet positive performance. We created a company where passionate and motivated individuals can collaborate to make a positive impact. Every day as I see our team in action I know we made the right choice.

This month, we celebrated World Green Building Week. What does building the transition mean for you? How do we plan the transition?

We are now in a rare moment, able to see (at least partly) what the future looks like. We are transitioning to operating our businesses in a warming world that will be free of all but trace amounts of fossil fuel use. Building the transition is about turning vision into reality and each of us gets to decide how we’re going to act. Whether for an organization, a project, or an individual, planning will be about knowing what role you could play, how you would benefit, and deciding to be first or second or last.

Canada’s transition includes energy efficiency, decarbonization & resiliency. How are these three areas linked?

We are decades late, so resiliency is now non-negotiable if our buildings are to survive through more floods and fires. Decarbonization is also non-negotiable to keep the problem from getting worse. Efficiency is how we achieve affordability by consuming only what we need and being good grid citizens to keep utility rates stable. We can address all three at once with deep building renewals. One example would be upgrading a heating system to simultaneously use a low-carbon fuel source, triple its efficiency, and relocate it from a flood-prone basement to a higher floor. This will look different at every building – windows or electrical infrastructure will be a critical part of many building renewals.

In a recent Accelerating to Zero session, one of your key points was that waiting for innovation in technologies, utilities or policies can play against us. Do you feel like our industry has enough sense of urgency? If not, how can we stress the importance of taking action now?

Many real estate owners I speak with are feeling the urgency, and many are taking action. But at a fundamental level, we are being confronted with change which can be frightening. And two of our three core human fear responses (fight, flight, freeze) will lead us to delay. We need to overcome this and find ways to move farther faster. This is every bit as difficult (and important) as it sounds. Those that are succeeding are seeing the opportunity in change, not the threat.

What tools do you think the industry needs?

This could be a very long list. Here are just a few: We need utility companies to provide better and faster data on electric service constraints so we can focus on buildings that should transition first. We need appraisal tools that create consensus on the value to assign to building transition impacts, so short-term asset “flipping” becomes a transition opportunity instead of a barrier. We need regulators and utilities to enable incentive programs to support the switch to electricity and low-carbon fuels, instead of disqualifying such activities. We need heat pump suppliers to publish more details on system performance in cold climate conditions. And we need lenders to offer loan structures that work for micro-projects, not just mega-projects.

CAGBC recently launched the Low Carbon Training Program to help upskill professionals and accelerate zero-carbon building. Do you see value in aligning different green building professions around a common nomenclature and core concepts?

Absolutely. I recently tried to replace my home’s gas furnace with an all-electric heat pump and twice I was told it can’t be done. It can – my brother did it last year (he loves it, by the way). Unfortunately training today is normalized around high-carbon practices – our textbooks and courses teach us how to build with concrete and steel not mass-timber. They teach us how to design gas boilers not heat pumps. What we need is training that is normalized around low-carbon practices, includes current application-specific details, and provides subject experts with a holistic understanding of how their work impacts other building systems. We can no longer afford to pretend that building envelope and electrical infrastructure are unrelated.

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