Platform aims to help builders reduce emissions

· The Pulse

The Alberta Ecotrust Foundation launched the Emissions-Neutral Building Information Exchange platform (ENBIX) to help the province's construction industry learn how to create emissions-neutral buildings or retrofit existing ones to this standard.

Andrea Linsky, director of emissions-neutral buildings for the Ecotrust, told Taproot that between 40% to 60% of the emissions in Edmonton and Calgary come from their buildings. "And those are the existing buildings," Linsky said. "Those aren't the ones that we are building in the future."

That's partly why the Ecotrust created ENBIX. It built the platform using $3.7 million in funding split between Edmonton ($1.7 million), Calgary ($1.4 million), and the Ecotrust's Climate Innovation Fund, which contributed $600,000. The project is funded until 2027.

The ENBIX platform creates a place for builders and other stakeholders in the construction industry to learn from one another and generate new knowledge. It was inspired by projects like ZEBx in Vancouver, as well as Edmonton and Calgary's climate strategies, which call for such a tool.

The platform includes a resource page, events list, and five programs. Two programs aimed at generating knowledge are the Communities of Practice stream, which is a forum for industry members to solve challenges, and the Industry Research Question Exchange, which is a database of queries to industry and academia for exploration.

"We want to help share the knowledge that you are building or have built over the years, and our team is there to do that," Linsky said. "Most builders don't have the time to sit down and share their story widely about the five or six net-zero homes they've built, for instance. But our team, we have that capacity, so we can sit down and interview people and pick their brains and help publish and share that knowledge."

Linsky said engaging industry leaders is paramount to ENBIX. One such leader is Peter Amerongen, who participated in the Shaping the Exchange engagement. Amerongen is a decades-long veteran in sustainable building practices who works with RëNu Engineering as a consultant. He told Taproot that emissions-neutral retrofits (which are the improvement of a product or structure that do not require razing and rebuilding) are an additional and essential piece of the emissions puzzle.

"I think there's been a trivial amount of retrofit activity," Amerongen said. "We have 10 million buildings to do in Canada. If Alberta were a tenth of the country, that would be a million. We've done a handful."

Still, Amerongen describes Alberta as a "national leader" for new buildings despite the province having a "very small number" of completed net-zero projects. He is less optimistic about the intersection of new structures built below the highest standard and emissions-neutral retrofits.

"It's heartbreaking that we continue to build buildings that are not net-zero because we're going to have to fix them all," Amerongen said. "And the hardest ones to fix are going to be the ones most recently built. It's an emergency that we adopt the national code. The ones that are easiest to retrofit are the ones that have a big maintenance backlog … when you're doing the cost-benefit analysis, it's much easier to show that it's worth the money to upgrade them."

A group of eight people pose inside a building to the right of the Albertan flag.

(From left) Jen Hancock of Chandos Construction, Anand Pye of NAIOP Edmonton, Adam Larson of Zu House, Collin Campbell of Mattamy Homes, Coun. Aaron Paquette, Mike Mellross and Andrea Linsky of Alberta Ecotrust Foundation, and Mayor Amarjeet Sohi at the launch event for ENBIX on Dec. 7 at NAIT. (Supplied)

What's the difference between net-zero and emissions-neutral buildings?

"Net-zero" and "emissions-neutral" are terms that address the climate impact that buildings have. The simplest distinction is that the latter casts a more comprehensive net.

Still, Linsky said the terminology can be confusing. "Are you talking about net-zero carbon? Are you talking about net-zero energy? These mean very different things from an emissions' perspective. By using the term 'emissions-neutral' we're really trying to talk about reducing the overall emissions of a building … We're also looking at the emissions that it takes to build buildings, what we call 'embodied carbon.'" (According to The Carbon Leadership Forurm, "embodied carbon" describes "the greenhouse gas emissions arising from the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of building materials.")

Amerongen said building codes are also important. These are set at the provincial or jurisdictional level, and for Alberta it's the province. These codes are most commonly based on the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes established by National Resources Canada. Those codes include the National Energy Code for Buildings (NECB), which is what most affects Linsky and Amerongen's efforts.

Linsky said Alberta is working to adopt tier one (the lowest) laid out in NECB 2020, the latest guidelines from the commission. She described it as the "same as base code," meaning it makes little advancement in reducing emissions, and added that higher "tiers are in code, but they are not required to be met."

By comparison, British Columbia's building codes' authority has a plan for incremental requirements as it relates to energy efficiency that took effect in May.

Linsky said the adoption of higher-tier building codes can advance climate goals, but added ENBIX can help builders set their own agenda while simultaneously informing regulators.

"We don't intend to be an advocacy group or anything like that," Linksy said. "But we do want to provide the data-driven evidence of what we're building in Alberta as a resource for anyone who's building policy across Alberta. It's about, I guess you could say, getting ahead of code and forming code rather than being pulled along by code."

Amerongen said regulators require data on what works and how much it costs to help inform code.

Amerongen and Linsky both described how important retrofits are when it comes to reducing emissions, including for the mass of vacant buildings in downtown Edmonton and Calgary.

Amerongen is board president for Retrofit Canada, and is nearing the end of an inventive retrofit on behalf of Butterwick Projects for the Sundance Housing Co-op in Riverdale. He said what he learned from the project could help strengthen the business case for emissions-reduced retrofits.

"We've learned way too much," he said, noting that while this project's case study isn't complete, there are about 15 total retrofit reflections on the Retrofit Canada website. "Retrofit Canada exists to share the lessons learned, but we've also done lots of other kinds of outreach. We're working on some videos right now, I've got mountains of drawings, and I've given 40 or 50 presentations."

Amerongen and Linsky both see knowledge sharing as an avenue to reach a point where emissions-neutral buildings are the same price as conventional ones. It's a way to make it make business sense in the future.

"With any new concept or technology, there's always going to be higher costs for early adopters," Linsky said. "Once everyone is aware of what solutions are working and once we've done the research from existing projects to see what solutions are working and are more cost-effective, it really will help make everything cost-effective."

Linsky doesn't think knowledge across the industry will be guarded to protect competitive advantages.

ENBIX launched Dec. 7, and Linsky shared that two attendant companies are already in direct talks on net-zero practices: Effect Home Builders and Mattamy Homes.

Mayor Amarjeet Sohi attended the ENBIX launch and a discussion panel, and described both in a post on LinkedIn as enlightening. "I have two takeaways to share: our climate and affordability goals need to be achieved TOGETHER, and we must work towards a future where construction jobs ARE climate jobs," Sohi wrote.

ENBIX's next in-house event is the Introducing ENBIX: Webinar on Jan. 23. More information on the Building Retrofit Accelerator is coming soon, Linsky said.