The Push and Pull of Green Development

By: Jeffrey Maxwell, P.Eng., President & CEO of TRAK International Green Energy Resources

Jeffrey Maxwell, Clean50 honouree for Building: Design, Development & Management, describes how MURB developers can implement CleanTech in new builds or retrofits with help from TRAK International Green Energy Resources.

Multi-Unit Residential Building (MURB) developers in the condominium and rental property market can be economically limited to conventional heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) mechanical and electrical systems. While good characters want to champion sustainable building, good leadership of a private development corporation also demands making a financial profit. The business case for new MURB construction is heavily weighted within the initial fixed capital costs, while future community sustainability may only be measurable at perceived and discounted values.  

A major factor in a building’s total sustainability is the ongoing performance of its HVAC systems. The variable cost savings that green technology might create for building owners can take several years to recover an incremental investment. Challenged to clear the first cost hurdle, a project proforma is often left with “business-as-usual” gas-fired boilers, fan coil units, and chillers that collectively use enormous quantities of fossil fuels.

Moreover, in what is already a venture involving market risk and future construction cost uncertainty, developers must be conservative and cautious when considering unfamiliar alternative HVAC strategies. Subsequently, unless they remain the building owners, such as with purpose-built rental apartments, most developers have a code-limited relationship with ongoing operating costs and long-term environmental impact.    

Developers can do good while doing good business

Jeffrey Maxwell, P. Eng.

The Push

Legislated green standards are advancing each year toward achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Largely due to the recognition of climate change, building designers and developers are slowly being pushed to comply with evolving minimum green standards within government regulations.

Provincial and municipal regulations have introduced specific energy and GHG-related measures. Ontario municipalities such as Toronto, Halton Hills, Whitby, and Ajax have tiered mandatory standards. Brampton, Markham, and Vaughan use a points-based approach to green standards, with a list of compliance options but no mandatory requirements.

Since 2019, over 645 Canadian municipalities have been pursuing new or better Green Development Standards after declaring climate emergencies. However, pushing private sector builders outside a feasible business case can lead to reluctance, avoidance, evasion, and even some faking compliance and clandestinely in exchange for access, passing off detrimental long-term costs to their end-user customers, as is the case of extortionate “geothermal” lease arrangements lasting upwards of 30 years and beyond.  

The Pull

Without being forced by legislation, some proactive developers are taking a win-win initiative and choosing to pull the market into the better and higher-value building and HVAC technologies that are not yet considered mainstream choices. This includes more efficient use of heat pump and geoexchange (often incorrectly termed “geothermal”) technology and other smart energy management methods. Even though these technologies have been available for many years, they have been held back due to some past poor designs and expensively redundant installations. Many developers still perceive them as being risky, complicated, and costly.  

As a professional in the industry, I am striving to improve this perception with sound reasoning, proven science, better design/build construction, and perseverance in a good business framework.  

TRAK is focused on bringing patented cleantech HVAC and Refrigeration methods and equipment, developed proven in other North American locations, to Ontario MURB developers. The TRAK International Green Energy Resources team engineers, designs, and builds mechanical and electrical building systems that feature energy-efficient and environmentally beneficial HVAC/R systems.

Our customized Smart Energy System (SES) designs optimally integrate three core elements 1) non-fossil fuel low-temperature energy efficiency and recovery, 2) thermal storage and its effective reuse, and 3) onsite electricity generation for the reduced load to deliver safer, sustainable, and resilient building environments. TRAK’s SES construction typically features various forms of internal and exhaust air and water heat recovery, centralized heat pumps, geoexchange, low horsepower fan coil/radiant distribution and storage, and onsite combined heat & power (CHP) distributed cogeneration.

TRAK’s Smart Energy System

TRAK’s building energy management controls systems and programming synergize the building operation. In addition to making real-time operating decisions in varying conditions, the SES controls and suite sub-metering identifies and allocates utility use and costs. The SES can reduce GHG emissions by up to 100%, conserve water, and reduce energy operating costs by 40% to 60% and more compared to buildings with conventional HVAC/R systems.

The SES safely enables a precise, healthy building climate environment, and uses an exceedingly small volume of environmentally friendly and safe non-ammonia refrigerants. It eliminates boilers, chillers, fluid cooling towers, and guarded plant requirements among many other items.

Developers may first perceive an incremental mechanical and electrical cost of TRAK’s SES over conventional as a barrier, but soon learn that the added value has cost offsets in the overall building budget. For example, the many values of heated and dry underground parking can be realized without increasing the overall construction budget. Even when there is a higher upfront capital cost compared to conventional mechanical and electrical divisions, this is offset by operating cost savings in a cashflow positive outlook from day one. 

Over the years in new resort and condominium construction, TRAK has arranged the coverage of incremental upfront costs through “green loans” that are repaid in a net cashflow positive way through the comparative utility cost savings. The green loans have been typically structured from 10 to 15-year terms. Some projects have completed their terms and realized further freed operating costs long before a building might typically need major building maintenance and repair.  

Economic model of TRAK’s SES vs a Conventional System

TRAK’s single biggest impact in the past year has been bringing and furthering technology, developed in the British Columbia interior condo/resort market and across the United States, back to Ontario to effect complete redesigns of seven GTA MURBs from conventional HVAC mechanical and electrical designs. Our objective is to collaborate with progressive developers to repeat and magnify past success and accelerate the most Canadian difference in the more massive and energy-intensive urban parts of southern Ontario.

The evolved design-build and “green loan” financing empowers developers to benefit their business and their clients. I have led four Ontario developers to accept fundamental change and use TRAK’s SES in seven MURB condo and rental projects. Implementing the SES since 2020 in TRAK mechanical and electrical design-build contracts, these new Ontario MURB projects (totalling 1.8 million ft2 and numbering 2,123 suites) are modelled to achieve a total annual 58.9 million kWh energy savings, 9.6 million kgCO2e GHG reduction, and 62.3 thousand m3 water savings compared to buildings with conventional systems.  

MURBs should be designed for health, comfort, energy savings, and minimal carbon footprint in a way that has a comparative financial benefit for all concerned. We can help developers follow their natural character to build and do good for people. There is value added by making better cleantech solutions part of their realized vision.

Additional collaborative projects are following the path with each team. The rate of growth and scale of the large southern Ontario urban centres will amplify our clean energy impact on other communities. Developers can do good while doing good business. We can be leaders, not just followers of legislation. We can proactively choose to improve our living environments and benefit people in ways that enhance business and economic growth.