University student takes climate friendly building from good to great

By Isaac Nay, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter


The office building that sits on the north end of the University of Waterloo’s campus was an energy-efficiency showpiece that barely relied on fossil fuels for heating, lighting or power. That wasn’t good enough for Monika Mikhail, a master’s student in environmental studies at the school.

While the building, dubbed “evolv1,” already contributed extra power to the electrical grid thanks to its solar panels, Mikhail was convinced she could kick it up a notch. She understood it isn’t just how the building is constructed that matters. It’s also how it’s run.

Mikhail and a team of University of Waterloo researchers tested and fine-tuned the building’s heating equipment, a process referred to as commissioning. They found having someone constantly monitoring and adjusting the building’s equipment could reduce its energy consumption significantly.

“(evolv1) is a high-performance building, but it taught us that commissioning is a really important step,” Mikhail said. “You shouldn’t set it and forget it. People have to work to refine their energy consumption.”

Buildings account for a significant chunk of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. According to Natural Resources Canada, the fossil fuels burned to heat buildings, plus the energy used to power and light them, account for 18 per cent of Canada’s direct greenhouse gas emissions. Most of that energy, Mikhail said, comes from heating.

When it was first built in 2020, evolv1 was certified by the Canadian Green Building Council as a zero-carbon building, meaning it is highly energy efficient and minimizes its emissions.

The building’s gear includes heat pumps that run on electricity for heating and cooling. A geothermal pump also draws water from the ground and cycles it around the building to assist with temperature regulation. The equipment, plus the building’s lights and appliances, are partly powered by solar panels on its roof and above its parking lot. Still, Mikhail said, there was room for improvement.

While the building’s solar panels produce enough energy to feed excess power back into the grid half the year, it needs to take energy from the grid from October to April to power its equipment and ensure tenants have electricity. Mikhail wanted to help lessen that gap by minimizing how much energy the building used.

Mikhail knew building operators started heating the building each day at 7 a.m. However, she and her co-workers found they could reduce energy consumption by heating each floor earlier, one by one — starting with the third floor at 2 a.m., the second at 4 a.m. and the first at 6 a.m.

“When the building is coming out of weekend mode, making sure that it’s starting up gradually reduces peak demand,” Mikhail said.

This staggered start means the building draws energy gradually while heating up, instead of needing lots of energy all at once. It also shifts the building’s demand for energy away from peak demand, when the rest of Waterloo starts to draw energy as people wake up, which eases stress on the local grid.

Any building looking to reduce its footprint should find a way to monitor its energy consumption, Mikhail said. She added “all of these tiny decisions” about how to heat a building can also make a significant difference. By fine-tuning how its equipment was operated, Mikhail improved the building’s energy efficiency by 15 per cent.

Mikhail and her co-workers published their research in the Jan. 15 edition of the journal Energy and Buildings.

Mikhail said she hopes to continue studying how to make renewable energy accessible to Canadians. In May, Mikhail will start studying for a PhD in civil engineering at the University of Victoria.

“I think renewable energies are going to be an important part of the energy transition,” Mikhail said. “It’s important that we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and live safely.”

Isaac Phan Nay / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

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