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The Engineer: Dislodge the status quo

Talking about a new system is a waste of time. The money needed is not in the piggybank.

November 26, 2021  By David Heska, P.Eng.

Earlier in the year, the city of Toronto released its Net Zero Existing Buildings Strategy. We’re not surprised to read that 55 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings. The strategy recommends nine key policies, including, “Provide and support financing and funding to ramp up the amount of capital available to building owners for deep emissions retrofits,” and, “Support workforce development and training to ensure a strong and sufficiently numbered workforce is ready to meet the new demand for deep emissions retrofits.” I’ve written previously on the need for further workforce training in our industry, so I want to focus this time on the need for financing and funding.

We all like real-life examples so here’s one from a project my team is working on. Picture a 20-storey building located in the downtown of a major Canadian city. The building was constructed in 1975, with its 50th birthday on the horizon. The original drawings indicate the manufacturer of the aluminum-framed window wall system; however, the manufacturer is no longer in operation and many parts are obsolete. The seals on the fixed, double-glazed IGUs are failing, and the horizontal sliding single-glazed units are contributing to leakage. The spandrel panels are plywood covered with an aluminum skin with 90 millimeters of fibreglass insulation.

Over the years, the owner has spent money addressing leakage issues, replacing glazing and repairing anchorage. The window wall system is at the end of its service life and major renewal is required in the near term. So what would you do? A $5-million repair? An $8-million refurbishment? Or an $11-million full replacement? I recognize that many of us do not sit in a position to make this decision. Most of us are on the design, contractor or supply side of the equation. However, if our client does not have the funds to complete this work, talking about a brand new CW-PG50 system with an I60 temperature index is a waste of time. It would be like talking to my ten-year-old daughter about buying a new car. The money needed is not in the piggybank.

Which option would the authors of the Net Zero Existing Buildings Strategy want our owner to select? Of course, they’d want the full replacement option. The best performance comes by removing the existing wall system in its entirety and installing a new modern window wall system that exceeds all current building code requirements and includes triple glazing. However, without more financing, incentives and credit options, clients like ours will be reluctant to complete deep emission retrofits. Unfortunately, the return on investment in a simple dollars and cents calculation is typically not there.


So, what’s next? I suggest we wait and see. Governments from the federal level on down have promised money for investment in energy-saving retrofits. Change is coming. The report says, “Supporting building owners in making the transition to zero emissions must necessarily leverage funding from other actors (e.g. utilities) and federal and provincial governments.” The goal of net zero emissions by 2050 is lofty and will require cooperation. I know that our team is ready to throw our support behind this strategy and we look forward to working with yours. But without incentives and funding for building owners it will be hard to move beyond anything but the status quo. •

David Heska, P.Eng. is a director with WSP’s building sciences team in southwestern Ontario. He oversees the operation of the Hamilton, Kitchener and Windsor offices. David has been involved on window simulation projects as well as the design and replacement of windows. He can be reached at David. 

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