Interview with Marine Sanchez: Passive House and the Toronto Green Standard

In this interview I speak with my friend and Passive House inspiration, Marine Sanchez, Passive House Specialist with RDH Building Science in Toronto. Marine describes the effect that the Toronto Green Standard is having on market transformation toward Passive House, as well as how the standard has helped shape her communication with clients and her work. In the interview she reflects on the importance of thermal resilience in the design process, the urgency for climate action, and the solutions we have at our fingertips, right now.

Zack Semke: Can we start with a step-through of the TGS [Toronto Green Standard] and do a 101 overview of that policy and how the steps work?

Marine Sanchez: Sure. TGS is the Toronto Green Standard, and we’re on Version 3 today. TGS is a sustainability tool with five categories—energy is only one of them. But let’s zoom in on energy.

TGS Version 1 was from 2010. Version 2 came sometime later, but, after Version 2, they studied the results, examining 90 buildings to determine if their energy consumption was better than code and aligning with %-reduction promised through the TGS approach. When they checked measured data, however, there was almost no correlation between the designed TGS performance and measured energy performance. So, they did a really, really big push to update TGS, particularly on the energy side of things. They started with a full literature review of all the building performance standards all around the world, picked the key ones, focused on the ones that actually lead to energy consumption reduction, and then tried to look at their key characteristics. One of the key characteristics was the use of absolute metrics.

Their study found that 87% of what we build every year in Toronto is low-rise MURBs [multi use residential buildings], high-rise MURBs, office, or retail. So, they decided to focus on these four archetypes plus a fifth archetype that is any combination of two typologies—such as ground floor retail and residential or offices above. They decided, with these typologies, “we’re going to do a ton of modeling to understand what it takes to get them to where we want to be, and where we want to be by 2030 is: delivering net zero-ready buildings.” It’s not net-zero; it’s net zero-ready. So, since TGS Version 3 came out in May 2018, that means the industry has 12 years to get all the way to 2030.

Based on archetypes, parametric modeling, and cost studies, and what it takes to get to the final target, absolute targets were set and split the gap to bridge by 2030 into four steps: Tiers 1 to 4. These are only temporary steps, so clever building owners, I think, might aim for Tier 3 or Tier 4 straightaway. But for the entire industry we’re going to raise them one level at a time, and every four years, the easiest step gets taken away.

Tier 1 is, today, mandatory. But Tier 1 is going to be taken away as of the 1st of January 2022, when the worst building that you can build will become Tier 2; by 2026, Tier 3; and then by 2030, Tier 4.

Roughly, I know that purists and energy modelers like myself will say that if you really look at it like-for-like, it’s not really quite the same thing, but for the industry as a whole, Tier 4 is similar to Passive House. In fact, the Passive House standard by the Passive House Institute has been agreed as an alternative compliance path for Tier 4 energy. Similarly, CaGBC [Canada Green Building Council] Net Zero Energy has been allowed as an alternative compliance path for Tier 3.

Zack: Oh. Interesting.

Marine: Very interesting, right? Their TEDI (Thermal Energy Demand Intensity) target is 30 kWh per square meter per year, which aligns with TGS Tier 3. While TGS Tier 4 TEDI target is set at 15 kWh per square meter per year, which aligns with Passive House (PHI). And then, the city went one step further, saying “Oh, and by the way, we’re going to show leadership, so everything I just told you is for private clients. Any city-owned buildings are required to achieve everything one step sooner.”

Today, for example, city-owned buildings, like the one RDH is working on with TCHC [Toronto Community Housing Corporation] (already aiming at Tier 4!), have to meet Tier 2 now and Tier 3 in 2022, which is very soon. By 2026, the worst building they can build is Tier 4 or basically Passive House.

Zack: That makes a lot of sense.

Marine: But clients fall from their chairs when you tell them that this is what is included in the standard. They’re like, “Really?” And so this is TGS Version 3, ranging through Tier 1, 2, 3, 4, which is our pathway towards 2030 net zero-ready buildings, and 2026 net zero-ready for city-owned buildings.

Zack: That’s great. You now have this policy catalyst in TGS Version 3 that is clearly moving towards essentially Passive House, so the writing is on the wall. I remember you saying that, back in 2013, when you started training CPHCs [Certified Passive House Consultants] and CPHDs [Certified Passive House Designers], you saw this fundamental disconnect between supply and demand. Basically, you thought that it was great to get trained as a consultant, but if the industry doesn’t realize we need to design this way, then aren’t we missing something?

Marine: It has changed. You know Ed May from Building Type in New York?

Zack: Yes, he’s an advisor with the Accelerator.

Marine: He’s one of our Passive House Canada instructors, based in NYC, and we caught up last night. He just said, “You have so many cranes; it’s absolutely nuts.”

We’re building so much everywhere. I don’t know if you’ve been to downtown Toronto lately, and I’m sure many cities are the same, but, there’s another high-rise residential story tower that pops up around the corner, every other week or something. As much as the momentum is coming and it’s great, we’re building so fast that it scares me a little bit to think that this is the building stock we’ll have to retrofit in a decade or two.

Zack: Yeah. Same dynamic in Seattle. For sure.

Marine: I can imagine. I sometimes chat colleagues in our Seattle office and it sounds like we’re facing the same challenge.

Zack: But going back, CPHC and CPHD training have always played a dual purpose, both technical and market awareness-raising about the value of the Passive House approach. Do you think this market awareness-raising played a role in TGS Version 3 turning out the way it did?

Marine: I’m not sure because I was still practicing in Europe while TGS Version 3 was being shaped, but, to me, I would say that it is the other way round: the market transformation is happening due to TGS Version 3 now being in application. The city has a subdivision called TransformTO, and they’re responsible for showing how we can achieve climate change mitigation. They’re putting all the upfront work to say, “You’re overwhelmed. You have no idea where you should start, but, we’re looking at everything and technically, these are the goals. We’ve broken them down in small pieces, and what we are seeing is that some actions are required regarding waste, transportation, and zooming in on buildings, you need 100% of new buildings to be net zero-ready by 2030.” They’re doing the legwork to set our goals, and then the city takes these objectives back and decides on actions to be taken.

It took me a while to realize this, but you present all these steps to your clients/design teams and you’re telling them we need to go to 2030 and net zero-ready buildings, and you obviously get some people thinking “No, this is too hard. It keeps changing! What are we going to go to after 2030 if you keep dragging these targets lower and lower? It won’t be feasible!”. But what I have come to believe is that, when you achieve Tier 4 or Passive House, you’ve won the battle on the energy consumption side of things. I don’t think we’ll ever require buildings to be better than Tier 4 or Passive House. We know it ceases to be cost effective to push your energy demand down to zero, right? We’re talking about “zero energy”, but “zero energy” means using as much as you’re producing in renewable energy. But if you talk about a genuine zero in energy demand, it’s difficult and not possible for all individual building to achieve.

So we need to tell people that we should, right now, design for 2030 – like TCHC (mentioned above) is doing. And then, what happens in 2030 is the start of a new battle, this time with reducing embodied energy/embodied carbon. If you can have all the battles today on your project, then go for it. But if you cannot and you have to pick one, you do have to start with that operational energy as it has a heavier impact on the building’s carbon footprint (today and through the rest of the building’s lifetime). And so, the industry needs to realize that the 2030 targets are no more than two to three building cycles away—maybe even less on big projects that have a lot of inertia and don’t move fast. And if we tell the industry: “If you learn how to design for the 2030 targets today, you will be ready to design high-performance buildings with low operational energy consumption for the foreseeable future”, then people start realizing that high performance is here to stay.

You might have to be more straightforward sometimes. Some manufacturers haven’t yet realized that if they don’t change their product line, then they’ll simply be out of business in ten years. This is what we’re talking about, and I know it’s hard to hear but this is what we can expect over the next decade.

“If you don’t adapt, you don’t have a future.”

I think TGS is enabling us to start the (scary) conversation, but then supporting them through that change, telling them “We’re here to help”.

Zack: Yeah. Telling them: “Relax, we’ll figure this out”

Marine: Exactly. “We’re here to help. Are you ready to talk about what we need to do?”

Zack: That’s true for manufacturers, that’s true for developers, that’s true for architects, for engineers. That powerful argument cuts across all layers of the industry, right?

Marine: Absolutely. One final thing worth highlighting with TGS version 3. I don’t know if I mentioned it, but with Passive House, resiliency is not a requirement for certification as it stands right now. However, one additional piece that TGS Version 3’s energy requirements bring to the table is that you now need to talk about resiliency. They’re not forcing you down a certain path. They’re simply asking you to have this conversation.

By simply putting the conversation on the table, it already opens so many doors because typically, people don’t even think about it. We’re asking about thermal resiliency—what if you have a power cut in winter or in summer next year? [See footnote below.] We’re also asking about future climate. There are developers who operate their buildings. By simply asking them, “Have you looked at the 2040 Toronto future weather study?” It gives an indication of where we’re heading. At RDH, we then use meteorological profiles with IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] scenarios to create future weather profiles for Toronto and Vancouver all the way to 2100. You then ask them, “When is the next chunk of money unlocked to retrofit the building you are building this year?” Most of them say 2050, 2060, even 2070. By showing them how their building reacts to future weather files and/or to a loss of power, this raises some serious questions about the robustness of their buildings.

Canada feels the effects of climate change a little bit faster than other places. Scientists say the more north you go, the faster it gets. It feels a little irresponsible or dangerous to me to build buildings today and not stress test them against events in the near and far future, even if they’re already designed to high-performance standards. It changes the decision-making process so much to extend the period considered from today to the next 50 years.

So, I like that TGS is forcing us to have that conversation. I’ve already had this discussion on several of my projects and it led to really positive outcomes. It is not easy to bring these difficult questions to the table, but it fundamentally leads to our design team delivering better buildings. In terms of occupants’ comfort, shelter provision in case of extreme events, building maintenance schedule and cost, etc.

You’re just asking the questions. It’s the same process to what happened in Seattle with air tightness testing. If you start asking for it, then you might not necessarily have to set a target for things to get better because the first step is raising awareness, which already moves things in the right direction.

Zack: So TGS version 3 and Passive House are helping each other move forward.

Marine: I think that the TGS-Passive House combo works well. We can now talk about climate change; about thermal resiliency during extreme events; about future climate resiliency; about health; about comfort; about taking people out of fuel poverty; about reduced energy costs; about lower greenhouse gas emissions; about productivity… And we have to tackle all these important points right on our first try. You do it once and you do it right, and you go all the way because, if not, we keep on locking in carbon, which is what we’re doing with new buildings not designed to a high-performance standard. Even if we do amazing starting 2030, we’re still going to be in deep trouble because of all that carbon locked in in the existing building stock, which we won’t be able to reduce enough during these crucial next few years.

Zack: Absolutely. Can you talk more about how embodied carbon fits in all this?

Marine: Embodied carbon is not a new discussion in the industry anymore, though not yet a standard one. I’m very happy about this because, as I said, if you can only tackle one battle at a time, we generally start with the operational energy. However, you can actually tackle these two battles at the same time, which is the right thing to do. Bringing this topic to the table will have an impact on retrofitting the existing building stock, which I think most cities are right now in discussion as to what their plan exactly is.

Similar to the resiliency topic, if we don’t even ask a few simple questions around embodied carbon, we’re not going to get a good answer. But if we ask a few simple questions about concrete, such as: “Can I have concrete with a minimal amount of cement in it? I still want the exact same structural properties, but with a minimal amount of cement to do the job”. Or “is your steel coming from a basic oxygen furnace or an electric arc furnace?” Or questions related to insulation types. These might not be difficult design changes but without asking, we will never know. It is only a small effort to specify these choices. And it can certainly bear a significant impact on the building’s embodied carbon footprint. And yet, as an industry we forget to ask the questions.

Zack: Indeed. So how do you think the Toronto market will change over the next decade?

Marine: I think there’s a lot of key players who are working really hard to make things change, and this message is getting across and slowly settling in and bringing results. For example, TCHC first attended the City of Toronto training about TGS version 3 and decided that the next building they deliver, they would use it as a Passive House pilot. They realized they had less than six years to figure it out (they have to reach Tier 4 by 2026, not 2030), and they know it will take them two to three years to get this one out of the ground. So it was important to start now, to be ready for Tier 4 when it comes in force.

So I think through community leaders, like Lisa King for instance, there are people who are actively listening and taking steps to action, showing the way forward. These are the people who will get the pilot projects out of the ground. Once they do, they will have taken most of the barriers or excuses away for other people not to deliver high-performance buildings. People might say “we can’t do a big building, it hasn’t been done before.” And we’ll be able to say, “Look at UTSC [University of Toronto Scarborough]”, with whom RDH is working on an 800-bed Passive House Student Residence and Dining project, their first one on campus. Other people will say, “It’s social housing. We can’t afford it.” We’ll respond: “TCHC [Toronto Community Housing Corp] is already doing it. Why not you too?”

So I think it’s exciting, but there’s still a lot of work. I think that all the pieces are in place for achieving a market transformation, but we’re not there yet. We all have a role to play today, to make sure this transformation happens and is here to stay.

Zack: Final thoughts?

Marine: We’re running severely out of time and we all have to work together. It has to be now; it has to be all the way; it has to correct, perfect. This is what we have to do. As much as people are getting it, I’m not sure if everybody gets it yet. And gets the urgency of it, so it’s a bit daunting. At least your newsletter is making me feel better, seeing how fast things are changing across North America!

Zack: Well, glad to hear that. Also, this has really been super helpful and illuminating for me, and I’m excited to share the conversation. Thank you.

Marine: I’m flattered. Always happy to share what’s bubbling away. Thanks again, Zack!

Footnote: With climate change increasing incidences of localized powerful storms, more future ice storms, putting more stress on grids, and Ontario’s grid intimately connected to the US North East, blackouts like this ( resiliency is a concern for Toronto as every greater proportions of the population live in residential towers.

Author: Zachary Semke