169: The Past, Present, and Future of Passive House with Marine Sanchez (Part 2)

In the second part of Passive House Podcast co-host Jay Fox’s conversation with Marine Sanchez, the two explore the importance of collaboration, creating energy budgets early in the design process, and communicating to developers that improving building performance is a way of future proofing their building.

In the second part of Passive House Podcast co-host Jay Fox’s conversation with Marine Sanchez, the two explore the importance of collaboration, creating energy budgets early in the design process, and communicating to developers that improving building performance is a way of future proofing their building. Sanchez, one of the more prominent voices in the Passive House community and a Passive House Specialist at RDH Building Science, also discusses the importance of diversity and inclusion in creating a more complete vision of the challenges many communities face and how better building can provide solutions. The full transcript can be found below. You can listen to the first part of the podcast here.


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Jay Fox: You're talking about actual ways to overcome and become better energy consultant, and I think that's extremely valuable, but could you provide a larger picture that identifies some of the larger obstacles to the adoption of Passive House standards? Could you also identify some of the potential solutions just that you've seen?

Marine Sanchez: For the first part, which I think is easier [to answer], I think one of the main barriers to mass scale implementation is simply the way we approach the design and construction of our projects. This is how we've done it forever, and change is always hard, and change is always scary, but I think that through the collaborative process we have delivered Passive House smoothly on a number of projects independently of the experience of the team. So, if we were able to talk a bit more about that process and try to change the industry to have that kind of shift in the mindset as to how we approach it, which is not top down or in silo. I know we talked a lot about integrated design processes and all of that, but think about it even much further, right?

It needs to be extremely, extremely collaborative, where—almost before the massing is set up, before any rough architectural plans or anything are like not even set, but drawn—you have everybody around the table to say, “Here's the financial budget we're going to have to split and here are the energy targets and energy budgets or carbon budgets. That we're going to have to work with.” We need to be starting from there to say, “Let's look at every single option or every single design element and agree on the optimal solution from the start.” And then you start designing, in combination rather than in silo and potentially sequentially.

If the architect starts first, then some of these design decisions for the mechanical might already be taken off the table. If you don't have enough floor to ceiling height, you might not get a floor-by-floor ventilation distribution that might have been the optimal solution for your building, right? And vice versa. So, I think that design process is, again, something that we've done successfully. It's just that, as an industry, I think we need to embrace it a little bit more, but I don't think it’s technology that’s holding us back. Maybe the North American market is slightly less spoiled than the European market, but we already have enough, and it's only getting better and better, so I don't see that as the main barrier that we're seeing straight away. I think the first, the first portion is really about process.

If we were able to try something different, I think it would get a lot of benefits because it's not just for Passive House building. This is the approach you need for every single high-performance building. But even if it wasn't to be a high-performance building, you would probably save time and money with fewer design iterations. Maybe enhanced collaboration is what gives you both cost and performance optimization, and the more you depart from it, the more you might lose on one or the other.

JF: I think that makes a lot of sense, since what causes the most amount of money to be lost is these delays where maybe you get six months down one rabbit hole before you realize you have to turn around and go back—say you have to change something like something as central to the building as changing the ventilation systems from centralized to decentralized.

MS: And we have seen it. They’re requestioning or asking how about we switch from one to the other at the middle of CD [construction documentation phase]? That’s not optimal timing.

So, it’s that kind of collaboration that should, could, will become the industry norm because as the energy targets are getting lower and lower, the teams that don't use that approach will be stuck in cycles of iterations where they design, and then they check how well their design performs, but it won't be enough. So, now they have to go back to the drawing board and check again. So, I think it will become the norm, but we could definitely have a faster implementation.

The other portion of the question is a bit more delicate, I think—with developers and owners. The few things I would say are that I think we've had really good success with different types of owners and developers in guiding them towards high-performance buildings, not necessarily because of one argument of the other.

I do think that, first, every client is different, and we have to listen and see where they're at—what are their questions? what are their concerns?—and then you guide from there. But I think what’s been even more helpful to the industry lately is ensuring that all these clients or all these decision groups in different shapes and forms understand the broader landscape of where the industry is going, because they know what we know today, and they know where we were five or even thirty years ago, but they don't know as well as we know where we're going.

For us, it's clear because we read all the energy efficiency standards and every single article that comes out, and we have contacts and we get, you know, updates here and there as to what is coming up down the pipeline. And so, I think being able to, again, be that messenger and say, “Look, I'm not forcing you here, but I need you to realize that what you're seeing is a bit of a narrow vision, and we need to expand that to see what future codes will require—not just locally, but at a federal level, at least in Canada. This is what you're facing with the carbon tax. I know today you might not notice it as much, but we already know where it's going. So have you done your business case study, including over the lifetime of your asset? Have you accounted for resiliency? You’ve seen that we're seeing more and more extreme events between forest fires. Even on the East Coast there are floods, right? There are heat domes. How is your building reacting to this? Which occupants do you have and what responsibility do you have with your occupants? Are you paying to rehouse them? If it's an office, is it impacting your retention rates?”

Again, if they build a new building today or retrofit an existing building in one go, and they're pouring that amount of money into the asset, then they're not going to have the financial opportunity to do so within the next forty, fifty, or sixty years, right? So again, we have to show them what their building will likely be facing by 2070, 2080, or 2090—for which, you know, we have some data.

I'm just looking at Toronto right now because that's where I'm based, but we have future weather files for 2040 to 2050, and it's already significantly different. So, you can see that if you're stretching that and looking at the IPCC reports and Meteonorm files, that this is going to be significantly different, so you have to ask them, “If you don't have extra money coming in along the way to face all of that, what happens to your building? Is your asset falling down in value? Will people not want to be in your building and instead go to another buildings?”

It's like expanding their vision a little bit to say, “We think that all of these aspects should be part of your decision, and you tell us how you want to prioritize them. This is everything you face.”

When we act as that type of messenger, even if we don't have all the answers and we cannot tell a client to do this or that, we tend to have like really constructive discussions with them because selling high-performance buildings make a lot more sense than just doing code compliant buildings, which will be, by definition, obsolete a few years after they complete, if not before, right? For example, again, in Toronto, we're shifting to the next tier of the Toronto Green Standard in 2025. If you're designing your building today, and get the approval, your building is already obsolete before it’s even completed. So, it's really just helping the community and the decision-makers as to what they should consider, and then you'll have different answers from different groups.

But at least we are doing our job. This is our responsibility. This is nobody else's responsibility to start bringing all of these elements to the table so that we can truly empower our client groups and decision-makers to make informed decisions today for a building with a lifespan that will extend for more longer than they can probably imagine. But we are still asking them. We are putting them in a difficult position where they have to learn what that means over that entire period.

What they've done before is they've looked at the past, and the past was a correct representation of what would happen in the future. Therefore, they were able to make informed decisions based on that. However, we're taking them in a different direction where this is no longer true. And so, we have to give them extra tools and extra information to say, “You cannot look at the past anymore because that will put you in trouble. This is not representative of the future. Now, here are all the tools and information that we can give you, so that even if it's hard and something that hasn't been done as much, today you can make an informed decision on how you should approach the building for the next, easily, fifty-five years,” because it's five years of design and construction, and then another fifty years of operation.

So, it's not an easy job.

JF: It's creating a model that's half a century into the future, which seems kind of absurd because how can we know? To that point, when I started writing for the Accelerator, the idea of having an electric domestic hot water system in a multifamily was considered way too expensive. Within just four years, it is now becoming increasingly common. It will likely be standard in a few years.

Is it possible we’ll see a similar kind of shift with respect to embodied carbon? Like, are you seeing any materials that perhaps seem a little obscure right now—maybe because they’re too expensive to use at scale—but could hopefully within the next five years become almost standard?

MS: I don't know if I would dig into the materials. I would dig into certain products. But I think the first step to that journey is that we need to do these calculations. We are used to doing the calculations for operational carbon. We need to do these calculations for embodied carbon, as well.

Step two, we have to do the calculations sooner because we do the calculations, like, halfway through DD [design development] or CD to check how we're doing. But most of the time you have your hands tied as to how much flexibility you have for a change at that point, right? And so, I think we need to have the same growth in the embodied carbon modeling world that we experienced in the operational carbon modeling world.

If you get to bring back these calculations really early, then you can really influence the design because then you can look at all your key culprits. I'm not going to go into every particular product, but concrete is still a very big one. Steel, as well. It doesn't necessarily mean that it's bad, but you need to do your calculation, you need to know your design, you need to have embedded all the best practices in there first, and then you need to have that info to compile that with all your calculations and say, “Okay. This is what I want to do. I am delivering a building within the embodied carbon budget that I was given.”

We are already working with some cutting-edge developers that have set for themselves and their projects an embodied carbon target the same way as we've set themselves for an operational carbon budget.

JF: That's really cool.

MS: Yes, it's really interesting. But again, that can only happen if we start shifting the process a little bit. There's a lot more we can do, but you have to do the calculations first to know where you are at. Also, you don't want to prioritize the wrong thing if you haven't done the calculations.

So embodied carbon is still extremely important. However, in quite a few provinces you do have to tackle operational carbon to a wide extent before embodied carbon starts making a bigger dent into that budget, right? So I'm not saying you only do one or the other. If you can do both, you do both always. But if you had certain constraints on your projects that meant that you had to do certain design decisions and couldn't go all the way down your Christmas list, you would need these calculations to back you up to ensure that you can have the biggest impact as soon as possible.

Electrifying an existing building versus reducing demand—both of them will be needed the same as embodied and operational carbon—but you need to know what is happening. What is the capital plan? What is the sequencing of the improvements? You don't have a rule of thumb that can always apply and be right, because some in some buildings your windows and your roof will be failing. If that’s so, replace them tomorrow and go for an improved enclosure. If they’re not, you may not want to create additional embodied carbon by replacing products that are two years old and don't technically need to be replaced straight away.

I know I'm an engineer. I know I love my calculations, but I genuinely feel that we need a bit more data to start seeing better trends and to always come up with the most optimized solution to each building we design because, yes, we have to cut carbon. However, the timestamp of when the carbon gets submitted is also incredibly important. These next ten years are absolutely crucial for us. Yes, it's about cutting carbon, but the sooner we get to cut it, the more of an impact it also has. The faster we can move, the better it will be.

JF: I did have one more question that I guess is hopefully a little shorter because I feel like these have been massive questions that you could expound on for hours, but you're a great spokesperson for the Passive House community, and on top of everything else that the community is doing, we want to support more gender diversity in Passive House and construction. So, my question to you is, how can we start to bring in a more diverse group of people? What obstacles should we try to clear away so that we can allow that community to really flourish?

MS: I am not sure if this is an easier question. Solving climate change or diversity and inclusion? Joking aside, it's definitely an important question and definitely close to my heart.

I'll start with a tiny bit of background. I consider myself lucky based on being “raised” by the Passive House community and the Passive House community being a lot more inclusive than other communities that I've seen, I believe. So, I think that the Passive House and high-performance communities are generally better than where we would see everything else, but is it enough?

Not yet. And I have also had my fair share of discrimination based on gender or based on the discipline I was in, because energy is not as important as structural or mechanical. So, when you merge all of this and probably age, as well, I've had my fair share of experience on that.

But the way I would approach it is to bring more awareness to the topic. I think several organizations, like the Passive House Network and others, have been much better in raising the topic, but I was thinking also at conferences and making sure that, you know, we bring different voices from different minorities to the stage so that we start making diversity the new norm, rather than middle-aged white men on every conference panel. I think we’re getting away from that, but again it's not enough. We need to keep pushing, to keep augmenting the voices of minorities.

I think another point is access to the industry. We need to make sure we also give access to minorities a little bit more easily and to be proactive about this. We can actively reach out to different minorities to try to rebalance the scale a little bit.

Another item that is also incredibly important is mentorship. I've seen this work a lot, internally within RDH and within other organizations and also externally, for women. A mentorship can provide an avenue where women can share things that might not always be discussed in a work environment, but are definitely still challenges, no matter if it’s having just representation in a firm or even listening to people equally. I think we have to work on all these topics, this is incredibly important, but I think the first portion is really just awareness and accountability, and I think that's on all of us, right? Minorities can educate and can share their experiences so that people that are not in their position can try to relate, so that people that do have privileges can do that extra work of trying to remove some of these narrow lenses.

Sorry, I'm going on a small tangent, but I read a pretty infuriating and exciting book on gender inequality, which was technically focused on women, but once you understand the gist of it, it can be expanded to any minority. To start with, there's a big lack of gender disaggregated data, and if we're not aware and we don't measure what's currently happening, then it’s also pretty hard to address. It's funny because it brings me back to like day one of working with energy efficiency to start with, right?

When I started my career, the first mantra that I heard in the UK, from the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers is that you cannot control what you don't measure. No matter if you're talking about energy or, you know, diversity, equality, inclusivity, and all these things, it still shows you that awareness is still step one. After the awareness, you need to have data to then be able to work on that, and to address what you're seeing.

I'm just wondering if there's more we can do to keep pushing all of that because—tying back to the technical world—we've talked a lot over this hour about collaboration, and I think that collaboration looks very different when you have diverse people around the table. It looks a lot better. So, it's a win-win situation for us to also work on inclusivity to help us be better as an industry.

As much as we're addressing building and the climate crisis, we won't resolve the climate crisis without resolving social injustice and environmental injustice. As much as we might not feel in control or as much in control on other topics, I do believe that they're all really tied together, and we need a win on every single one of these topics to actually make us win overall, because us solving the climate crisis and not gender inequality—it's probably not going to work. It's probably still not a win at the end of the day.

So I think there's a lot we can do and we all have a voice, right? Like the Passive House Accelerator, but every one of us within our work, the decisions that we make, the project that we follow, and the approaches that we recommend to the client, right? And the wording that we use, again, I think it's all our responsibility to keep working on all these topics, even if at the core of it, we are working with buildings, but I think our impact can be a lot, a lot broader than that.

At the end of the day, we're all here to pursue the same goal and we're better and stronger together. Sometimes it takes some of these conversations just to remind yourself of where we're at and what we can do and to always have our north star shining over there and guiding us.