Canadian Consulting Engineer

The 1000 Tonne Challenge

June 1, 2005
By Kevin R. Hydes, P.Eng. and Rosamund A. Hyde, Ph.D., P.Eng.

Everybody's just going to have to use a little less energy ... C'mon Canada. Lose a tonne. Feel great." So spoke Rick Mercer in a television commercial earlier this year. He was promoting the federal...

Everybody’s just going to have to use a little less energy … C’mon Canada. Lose a tonne. Feel great.” So spoke Rick Mercer in a television commercial earlier this year. He was promoting the federal government’s program challenging Canadians to reduce our individual greenhouse gas emissions.

Canada’s Kyoto goal is a six per cent emissions reduction from 1990 levels by 2012. Recent reports suggest that stabilizing the climate would require at least a 50 per cent reduction by 2015.

For an individual “losing a tonne” is a good start. For a building design engineer much more leverage is possible and therefore with them lies much more responsibility and need for action. Building design engineers need to be aiming for the maximum greenhouse gas reduction achievable through improved building design. Present education systems, however, have neither the capacity to meet Canada’s needs for excellence in sustainable building design, nor the feedback mechanisms to trigger policy change.

This year in Canada, building permits will be issued for about 20 billion dollars’ worth of non-residential buildings, representing about 100 million square feet of space.1 These buildings on average will last 50 years. The ongoing greenhouse gas emissions associated with their operations, year after year for the next half-century, will be part of the legacy we leave to our children.

Buildings have a huge impact on the environment. Worldwide, 40% of raw materials are used for constructing buildings. In Canada, greenhouse gas emissions from the construction and operation of residential and commercial buildings amount to about 30% of Canada’s total emissions. Just the operation of commercial and residential buildings in Canada — heating, cooling, ventilation, equipment, lighting, hot water — was conservatively estimated to account for 140 megatonnes of CO2 emissions in 2004.2

With better design, these emissions can be reduced by 41% by 2012, and by 65%, or 91 megatonnes, by 2030. To cut those 91 megatonnes, however, every one of Canada’s 6,000 building design engineers needs to work exclusively on buildings that are twice as energy-efficient as the present standard.

This is the true “1,000 tonne challenge” facing building designers: to advocate for, and successfully design, “twice-as-good” buildings every time, starting today.

However, in Canada we have two problems with starting today. One is that the decision does not rest solely with engineers. The second is that engineers do not receive sufficient education in designing “twice-as-good” buildings to be able to confidently achieve that level of performance.

Educating for “twice-as-good” buildings

The skill of applying sustainable building design techniques is becoming more valuable and sought after along with our increasing sense of urgency that we need to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The field calls for individuals with knowledge in highly developed specialized techniques such as building energy simulation. They must be willing to explore design innovations, everything from grey water treatment systems to cogeneration, where there may be no local precedents. In addition, as building systems have to become more tightly integrated (e.g. heat rejected from one area being used for another purpose or being actively controlled in a thermal mass wall), design engineers need to understand all the systems and their interactions in much more detail than in the past.

But firms who offer sustainable building design services to clients are finding that the engineering graduates available for hire require extensive further training to meet this need.

What’s holding the schools back?

There are barriers to recognizing the problems with building design education and to implementing solutions.3

Better education in building design for engineers is crucial. It is even more urgent to “green” a building design engineer than, say, an engineer working in manufacturing of building materials. Why? Because an environmentally astute building design engineer will lead a building design team to source environmentally preferable building materials. If he or she fails to provide this leadership, the available green building materials will go unused and the efforts of their manufacturers will be wasted.

Implementing more student training in green building design, however, is difficult due to the nature of engineering education.

First, building design engineers are drawn from several engineering disciplines (mechanical, electrical, civil). Yet each discipline shapes its undergraduate curriculum to prepare students for graduate study, usually in areas other than building design.

Second, out of the 8,000 students granted undergraduate degrees in Canada each year,4 only about 200 (less than 3%) will go to work in building design — hardly a large enough group to merit special curricular attention. Yet these 200 students will join the industry that is responsible for 30% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Third, academic leadership is normally provided by people with doctorates, of whom very few are in practice as building design engineers. Successful building design engineers may participate in adjunct professor roles, but their influence on the curricula is limited.

Fourth, being a good building design engineer increasingly requires a sound knowledge of business economics, including subjects where design and costing are fused, such as life-cycle cost analysis and tax-based incentives. Ideally, business schools would collaborate with engineering schools to inculcate these skills.

The fifth barrier to improving engineers’ education in building design is the difficulty of teaching design teamwork. Emission reductions of 60% can be achieved in new buildings, but the process has to be right. The integrated design process, a fairly recent innovation (or perhaps forgotten practice) in the construction industry, gathers architects, engineers (mechanical, electrical and structural), landscape architects, energy simulators, cost consultants, manufacturers and contractors all together at the same table to set targets for minimizing the energy and resource consumption of the planned building. Together they can identify synergies. An improved envelope, for example, can reduce the capacity requirements for the heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system, so that for a comparable cost a building using lower amounts of energy is achieved.

Architects request the services of engineers who are trained to do integrated building design. However, architecture education and engineering education tend to occur separately. With more collaboration, architecture students would have the opportunity to practise designing with engineering students as preparation for participating in integrated design.

Collaborative learning

Some examples of collaborative architecture/engineering programs do exist:

* University of Toronto: in the “collaborative architecture and engineering design studio,” engineering and architecture students are paired to form a design team for a specified building project. Lectures are given on design development, aspects of structural systems design, the relationship of structure to the building function, modelling, digital modelling and drawing.5

* British Columbia Institute of Technology: a four-year Bachelor of Technology in Architectural Science is gearing up. This program, a two-year addition to the existing two-year course, is the first attempt to integrate the various construction sub-disciplines in BCIT — architecture plus mechanical, structural, acoustical, sustainable engineering, green roof design and so on.6

* Concordia University: an integrated building design course has been running for 20 years, giving students an introduction to computer tools for design.7

* University of Calgary: a number of courses run that typically inc
lude both architecture and engineering students. However, none of the courses are design studio classes nor are they requirements in the students’ programs.8

* McGill University: links are being created between the school of architecture and engineering through an interdisciplinary agenda. Engineering students are looking at design projects that can aid the architecture students in their sustainable design studios.

The examples above operate within the conventional framework of disciplines and schools in post-secondary education. An interesting contrast is provided by Sir Sandford Fleming College with its new program in “sustainable building design and construction,” launched April 2005. Because of the nature of the post-secondary system, the Sir Sandford Fleming College program is required to be highly practical and hands-on, and has therefore taken the direction of focusing on small-scale buildings. While this training may be helpful in the residential market, there is still a gap in education for the commercial/institutional market where 85% of buildings are more than 10,000 sq. ft. (930 m2) in area.9 This distinction illustrates the cultural divide between high-volume, conventional building design and low-volume, natural-green-sustainable building design.

Where are the engineers?

In general, it is the architecture educators who have been leading the charge through the educational initiatives mentioned above. They have done this through nation-wide planning processes such as the “Greening the Curriculum” event in Quebec City in June 2004, and through the work of the academic education committee of the Canada Green Building Council. We salute those architects involved, especially Dr. Ray Cole of Vancouver and Danny Pearl of Montreal.

But where are the engineers? What should the engineers’ role be? For example:

* If the architects have taken the lead on energy modelling, which we believe they may have, should engineers support them or copy their lead?

* If curricula change in the engineering schools is too slow, do we ask the colleges and business schools to jump in and help overcome the barriers? We need speed.

* Where is the government? Educating building design engineers is a key part of the market transformation that we need to meet Canada’s Kyoto commitments. Can special programs and modules be developed quickly as add-ons to existing programs? And how quickly?

* How can we encourage engineers to take the larger view? We need the engineering community to use more integrated and holistic thinking about our relationship and responsibilities.

Required interdisciplinary design is the key to the future. What we need immediately is to establish a process for industry and academia to meet and set in motion the development of accelerated and improved building design methods.

In collaboration with schools of architecture and schools of business, a new type of engineer can be cross-trained to understand the natural systems and pursue the synergistic thought processes that will make possible real sustainable building design.

We invite interested readers of this article to pull together a task force to address this challenge with the despatch it merits.

For a start, if you have knowledge, skills and connections you can share to contribute to such an initiative, let us know at so we can connect those who wish to take action. C’mon Engineers. Go for the 1,000 tonne challenge!


One engineer designing exclusively “twice-as-good” buildings would be able, every year, to reduce Canada’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions by more than 1,000 tonnes CO2e, for a 26,000 tonne reduction of annual missions by 2030. Multiplying annual savings by a 50-year service life for buildings, that engineer’s work saves the planet more than 1,300,000 tonnes.

Kevin R. Hydes, P.Eng., FCIBSE, is president of Keen Engineerng, founder of the Canada Green Building Council, 2005 chair of the U.S. Green Building Council, and adjunct professor at McGill University. Rosamund A. Hyde, Ph.D., P.Eng. is director of research at Keen Engineering in Vancouver.

1 Estimate based on construction industry information from Canadian Global Almanac 2003, Wiley & Sons, p. 202.

2 David Suzuki Foundation and Climate Action Network, “Kyoto and Beyond: the low emissions path to innovation and efficiency,” October 2002.

3 We are indebted to Alex Zimmerman, President, Canada Green Building Council, for his reflections on this topic.

4 Canadian Engineers for Tomorrow,

5 University of Toronto online calendar.

6 Information from Peter Levar, British Columbia Institute of Technology.

7 Information from Dr. Hugues Rivard, cole de Technologie Suprieur, Montreal.

8 Information from Professor Tang Lee, University of Calgary.

9 Natural Resources Canada. Canadian and Institutional Building Energy Use Detailed Statistical Report. December 2002.


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