Women in Passive House: Brittany Coughlin

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This is the second installment of our series with RDH Building Science about women leading the Passive House community. Our guest is Brittany Coughlin, Principal and Energy & Sustainability Specialist at RDH. Brittany is based in Vancouver, and has consulted on numerous Passive House projects, including the Doig River Cultural Center in northern British Columbia. She has also led the City of Vancouver’s High-Rise Passive House Feasibility Study.

Passive House Accelerator: What inspired you to pursue a career in engineering and sustainable building systems? 

Brittany Coughlin: I went into engineering because I was good at math and science, as many of us do. My dad was also an engineer, which I'm sure influenced me, as well. 

I became interested in green building during my first co-op term. I was given the opportunity to work for Intermodal Engineering, a small consulting company that was doing a lot of energy modeling, and they were just starting to get into LEED. On my first or second day of work, the president came back from Greenbuild, and he had all of these different brochures and pamphlets, and he said, “There's this new thing called LEED; we're going to start doing it.” And he looks to me and says, “Can you organize these product brochures for me?”

I did. And it was while I was working on sustainable-related aspects of buildings over the next few months that I became really interested in green buildings and sustainability. I had always been interested in the environment, and this tapped into a personal interest and passion of mine. Following that experience, I sought out other co-op terms in the buildings field geared towards energy efficiency and sustainability, I did a master's in the field, and then pursued a career in it. 

PHA: Was there anybody in particular who stood out as a mentor during school or early in your career?

BC: My supervisor in grad school, Professor John Straub, was a key person who had a way of always looking at the practical side of things. He has always been keen on sustainability and green buildings, but he’s also a capable and critical thinker. He looked at buildings from a first principles standpoint to make sure we were working towards real sustainability and real performance improvements. I think that kind of mentorship has underscored the way I look at buildings even to this day, as I’m always trying to be practical and to do things that make a measurable difference.

PHA: How did you learn about Passive House standards?

BC: I don't remember the exact moment in time that I got interested, though I remember going to local industry events with the Passive House community early on. Monty Paulson was a key person in Vancouver who I got to know, and he had a big impact on me. His energy and enthusiasm for Passive House was really foundational for me, but the principles of Passive House also resonated with me—especially coming from an enclosure background.

We had been doing work to better understand effective R-values in buildings and looking at how, in energy modeling previously, we didn't always capture true enclosure performance because we weren't looking at it holistically. Seeing how Passive House put the enclosure first and really looked at thermal bridging in detail resonated with me because that's what we had also been trying to push locally.

PHA: What was the first project that you worked on that used Passive House principles?

BC: The first one that really stands out to me is the Doig River Cultural Center, which is in northern British Columbia. It was a really challenging cold climate, with a design temperature of around -27°C. What was cool about it was that we were brought in very early on, and we had the opportunity to look at massing and orientation and some foundational things that you don't always get the chance to look at.

For example, we had a site where we could rotate the building 90 degrees from what they were originally thinking to take advantage of the solar exposure, giving us nice, big, south-facing windows to take advantage of passive solar gains. Sometimes in northern climates you see really well insulated buildings that don't have a lot of windows. We didn't want that to be the case.

We also simplified the geometry. We kept the really critical architectural and cultural elements but simplified some of the articulation to optimize things. We have to be able to do that stuff early on before it gets set in stone, and we try to tell all of our clients that starting early and looking at the project holistically is really going to set it up for success in terms of meeting Passive House standards. 

 PHA: Since joining the workforce, have you noticed efforts within the AEC community to be more conscientious about efficiency and sustainability?

BC: I've been in this industry for over 15 years now, and I've definitely seen a shift. There used to be an emphasis on energy efficiency, but now it's about carbon, right? So many more projects have high-performance sustainability goals attached to them. Honestly, it's almost rare to see a project that doesn't, and there's a lot more that are really targeting true high-performance, whether it's Passive House or net zero or something else. It’s true internally, in terms of companies, too. Just about every company hopefully has some plans to decarbonize their operations.

PHA: Have you noticed more of an effort on the part of companies to be more gender inclusive?

BC: Yes, we've made a lot of progress—and we still have a long way to go. There are so many incredible women in our industry and that is awesome to see. We have lots at RDH and lots of other companies, and we also need more. There's still not enough. There's still lots of biases out there. There are still areas and circles where we face situations that aren't comfortable or aren't inclusive, so we need to be active in trying to continue to take down those barriers and create a more inclusive area. I think every company has a role to play in that.

PHA: Speaking of changes, a lot of jurisdictions are implementing stricter building codes, and British Columbia has long been at the forefront of this movement. Has there been any attempt to export BC’s code to other provinces in Canada or states in the US? What advice would you give to any governing bodies in charge of such change and how you could implement them successfully? 

BC: It’s already starting to be exported. To step back, in BC we have the Energy Step Code, which has transitioned us from a code standpoint to performance targets—something that fits with Passive House quite well. Toronto has taken a similar approach with the Toronto Green Standard. I think we'll probably see something similar in our national codes in Canada pretty soon.

Massachusetts is doing something similar, and I actually had this really cool professional experience a few years ago, just before they introduced their Stretch Code. I was in town to do some work with RDH’s Boston office, and they'd set up a few meetings with me with some of the folks there. In preparation, I was reading up on the kind of research they had done to support the new code, and it was very similar to what we had done in BC. When I got to this meeting, I sat down, and I said, “Oh, it's awesome to see what you're doing. It's really similar to what we did in in British Columbia.” And they nonchalantly said, “Oh, yeah. We copied you.”

That was just such a cool moment for me just to see! Obviously, they did their work and there’s differences between the two codes, but it was really inspiring to see how someone can take an existing policy and build off of it to make it better, and then adapt it to their local context. I was just amazed that these ideas are spreading, and that high-performance building is spreading within the codes.

In terms of advice, I'd say that BC has done a great job of providing industry support and bringing the local industry along. They produced a number of guideline documents geared towards different parts of the industry: one for design professionals, one for contractors, one for big buildings, one for small buildings, and so on. They also did lots of training sessions geared towards different parts of the industry.

These kinds of programs are vital in supporting a smooth transition with new code. If we just put a code out there, and no one knows how to build to that level, we're not actually going to get the results that we're planning, right? It goes back to that practical side. It's not going to happen or it's going to take a lot of time. Putting a lot of effort into bringing the industry along, training them, giving them case studies, bringing them up to speed—all of this is pretty important for jurisdictions that are looking at implementing that sort of code. 

PHA: What do you think the next frontier for building science and decarbonization will be? 

BC: I think embodied carbon is the next big thing, and I think that we’re still in the early days. We still need to learn a lot on how we model and calculate embodied carbon, which is really hard to do with any level of accuracy. There are so many differences between materials and transportation and those kinds of things, as well as modeling approaches. The industry has a lot to learn.

Beyond modeling, reducing embodied carbon emissions will be really tricky. For example, with concrete—how do we do that? Mass timber is a good solution. It’s more costly, but it can have a big impact. We still have a lot to learn and a lot to tackle as an industry while also making sure we don’t glance over the operational carbon side.

Ultimately, I think we have a really good sense of what the solutions are, but we need to be doing it in way more buildings than we currently are. Making sure we're scaling is important.

PHA: How do you think public awareness and advocacy can drive positive change in addressing the climate crisis within the construction industry? 

BC: It has a huge role to play. So much of what we do is driven by consumer demand. If consumers are asking for lower carbon materials, if they're asking for more comfortable spaces, if they're asking for healthier indoor air quality, that's a big lever that helps us. For example, if people knew the benefits of an HRV with a high-quality filter on it to filter out wildfire smoke, everyone would want one, right? Having that kind of awareness and consumer demand, I think, is super important. We need to keep educating the general public and help people understand the value of these components, so that they're asking for them. That helps us get them into buildings. 

PHA: If you could give any piece of advice to a younger version of yourself given your experiences, what do you think that would be? 

BC: That's the hardest question, right? If anything, it would be to do just keep doing what you're doing. I think we need to give ourselves more confidence and give ourselves the kind of leeway to ask lots of questions and learn about different things in different areas. Just keep learning, which is something I'm still trying to do.

Author: Jay Fox