A perennial climate change question, and one that tends to pop up around January 1, is whether this year will be the tipping point, when markets, politics, public opinion and technology finally coalesce into a concerted, determined response to the climate crisis.
Against a backdrop of horrific climate disasters, a number of developments in 2021 offered some cause for optimism, from the International Energy Agency’s call to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 to new commitments from global banks and institutional investment funds to decarbonize their holdings. A growing number of cities, including New York, are enacting rules that ban gas hook-ups for new buildings. Meanwhile, in a case that could have long-term implications for energy-inefficient design in the era of climate change, a group of San Francisco condo owners sued a developer for US$10 million because the west- and south-facing units in their all-glass curtain-wall tower overheated so severely.
Here are five trends to watch for in the world of sustainable design in 2022:
1) Revved up stationary batteries, EV charging and microgrids
As the electric vehicle (EV) market grows, so does pressure on existing electrical grids, which in turn forces systems planners and utilities to be more proactive about distributed energy. In Canada’s most populous province, the Ontario Energy Board in 2021 began developing a new process for regulating this evolution. This entails a massive deployment of local renewable sources so the proliferation of EVs doesn’t merely trigger more investment in large gas-fired generating stations.
The EV charging sector is abuzz with start-up, investment and commercialization activity, stoked by multibillion-dollar government incentives announced last year for charging infrastructure. As well, new planning rules, such as the 2022 version of the Toronto Green Standard, will soon require developers to ensure that all parking spaces in new condo and office towers are fitted out with EV chargers. “I only hope that [governments] will also consider the new infrastructure that is needed to make that path successful,” says Deborah Byrne, chief operating officer for Kearns Mancini Architects, a Toronto firm that develops highly energy-efficient projects.
Another area poised for growth is the microgrid service industry and the energy storage market for stationary batteries like Tesla’s Powerwall, which is a device that can be installed in homes or offices to store back-up power. For college campuses, larger industrial sites or fleet depots, microgrid developers are installing on-site stationary batteries and rooftop solar panels to allow property owners to load-shift, meaning they are less exposed to peak period rates while still being able to operate charging stations for EVs. Eventually, though the technology remains nascent, microgrid software platforms will be able to draw power from parked EVs whose batteries are equipped with “vehicle-to-grid” inverters.
2) Goodbye natural gas furnaces
Public awareness about the need to transition away from natural gas to electricity for space heat, hot water and cooking is on the rise. In B.C. and Quebec, clean energy policies are giving financial incentives to homeowners who fuel-switch. And last year’s federal budget included billions in no-interest loans and grants for home energy retrofits, including subsidies for equipment such as air source heat pumps.
Policy-makers remain hesitant to stoke this transition, partly because of the lobbying heft of the natural gas industry, but also because they haven’t figured out how to provide enough clean electricity to satisfy additional loads from space and water heating.
3) Getting to the bottom of embodied carbon
In the latest iteration of Toronto’s Green Standard, the city’s developers can voluntarily begin assessing their projects’ embodied carbon (i.e., the carbon used to make materials like steel or drywall), with the understanding that the next version of this step code will make disclosures mandatory. Similar rules came into effect in B.C. in 2021.
Knowing your project’s embodied carbon requires developers and architects to make life-cycle assessments of building materials, with the ultimate goal of reducing waste and promoting the use of less carbon-intensive components (such as wood-fibre insulation instead of foam) as well as substitutes, such as concrete produced with steel slag instead of limestone-based cement.
Yet the trade-off between reducing so-called operational carbon emissions produced by building operations (e.g., heating and cooling) and embodied carbon remains a fraught subject. For example, passive house design, a green building standard with a heavy emphasis on insulation, has been criticized because it doesn’t pay enough attention to life-cycle analysis.
“Our more progressive projects have switched from embodied carbon boosterism to actually counting embodied carbon in a detailed way,” says Monte Paulsen, a passive house specialist at RDH Building Science, in Vancouver. “This is leading to some surprising findings, as many architects and boosters discover that all-glass buildings with wood inside perform worse [than] code requirements. Let’s hope that as we begin actually counting embodied carbon, we can make decisions based on data rather than belief.”
4) Fresher air for all
For decades, we’ve put up with crummy indoor air quality, thanks to off-gassing from synthetic carpets and other textiles, hermetically sealed windows and sub-standard or poorly maintained ventilation systems. Airless meeting rooms that produced drowsiness and headaches were a terrible but unavoidable feature of work or school life.
So in the world of building design, the run-up to last fall’s return to class may be remembered as a moment when architects, property managers and public sector agencies found religion around air quality and ventilation, the neglected poor cousins of the sustainable design world. The importance of proper ventilation has been underscored by accumulating evidence that airborne aerosols are a primary vector of COVD-19 infection.
From a sustainability perspective, improved ventilation can be tied to energy-efficiency devices, such as heat-recovery systems attached to fans and exhaust vents. In buildings designed to minimize energy leakage with features such as triple pane windows and ultra-air-tight vapour barriers, proper ventilation becomes that much more important as a means of preventing mould from excess indoor humidity. The result, however, are buildings with excellent indoor air quality, helping us all breathe easier in the coming years.
5) Smarter land-use planning
For many environmentalists, it is an article of faith that land-use planning rules that promote intensification and transit do the heavy lifting of carbon reduction. While policies that enact or safeguard green belts and density targets along transit corridors are not new, a growing number of cities have responded to the housing affordability crisis of recent years with policies designed to end what one Toronto business lobby group has dubbed “exclusionary zoning.”
These policies include automatic permissions for basement apartments, laneway suites (where possible) and backyard “accessory dwelling units” (a.k.a. garden suites) in neighbourhoods dominated by single family homes. Toronto City Council recently voted to update highly restrictive residential zoning rules by also permitting so-called multiplexes in low-rise neighbourhoods.
While such measures don’t, in and of themselves, deliver affordability, they do begin to address the depopulation of aging residential neighbourhoods where housing prices are no longer in reach for the vast majority of the population.
“There are lots of forces resisting this [trend], but it is happening much more than many would have hoped even two years ago,” observes Shoshanna Saxe, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Toronto and a sustainable infrastructure expert. “This is more important for sustainability than almost anything else we could do at this point, and will certainly have a much bigger impact than any novel low-carbon material.”