Resilience is the new “sustainability”. Once sustainability had been co-opted to mean keeping things the way they are, by sustaining our existing lifestyle, a new term was needed. Resilience has a number of meanings, but it is starting to mean the ability to weather our coming energy decline and inexorable decline of industrial civilization. Achieving resilience includes conservation of resources – doing more with less – but comes at a cost of reduced efficiency. Globalized “Just-in-time” manufacturing is cost efficient but not at all resilient, as demonstrated with the tsunami in Japan.

Jevons Paradox, where increases in total energy occur despite improved efficiency, occurs in a business-as-usual situation with increasing resource supplies. But as finite resources deplete we will be forced into consuming less in total amount, with increased resilience by switching fuels where possible in order to meet needs and demands. And increased resilience means for decreased efficiency, so Jevons Paradox won’t generally apply in a post-peak world.

By all means, increase efficiency where there is obvious waste, and don’t worry about Jevons Paradox. Efficiency is immediate conservation, and it buys us all much needed time to prepare for using less in total.

via Sierra Club Insider e-mail newsletter

Keep a Home Fire Burning?
Cold winter nights are a tempting reason to light a fire for heat and comfort. But whether you throw a log in the fireplace or use a modern US EPA-approved stove, it pays to know the pros and cons of wood-burning. Sierra magazine’s Mr. Green has the particulars on particulates in fireplaces, which usually aren’t efficient heating sources anyway.

Wood stoves, however, are another matter. Under the right circumstances, a modern one can be a cheap, relatively low-carbon home-heating source. Sierra Club Green Home’s guide to wood and pellet stoves has everything you need to know about the modern home fire.

Also on Sierra Club Green Homes web site is a good article about ground source heat pumps (geothermal) for heating and cooling.

Sometimes you can do all the right things and then have the last step seemingly undo all the effort you’ve gone to.

Elfstrom Engineering has a striking new visual identity designed by local firm Rossignol Design, fellow members of Green Enterprise Toronto. In ordering business cards Elfstrom Engineering went with the greenest possible choice: Local printer Warren’s Waterless.

Elfstrom Engineering green business cards

The business card paper is Rolland Enviro100 80 lb cover stock, featuring:

  • FSC certified 100% post-consumer fibre
  • Certified EcoLogo, Processed Chlorine Free and FSC Recycled
  • Manufactured using biogas energy

The printing is:

  • Done by an ISO 14001 certified company for Environmental Management Systems
  • Certified EcoLogo by Environmental Choice Program
  • Powered by green energy from Bullfrog Power
  • Waterless printing with vegetable-based inks, saving over 200,000 L annually with virtually no VOCs (volatile organic compounds)

There was a bit of a mix-up in the ordering process and somehow my order fell through the cracks for over a month. Not a big deal, I had been printing interim cards on my inkjet printer. Although self printed and cut cards aren’t ideal, I knew it was only a short time until the cards would be printed and shipped.

Yesterday my cards arrived at my front door by DASCO Emergency Couriers. So was it really worth it to send a guy in a car over to drop off those cards? I’d be fine with Canada Post parcel, or Xpresspost for next-day.

With food miles, where we count the distance traveled by our food before it reaches the supermarket, but in the end if we choose local food and drive a vehicle to pick up our groceries we’ve outdone all the energy savings in that single small trip.

Had Warren’s been located a little further East, at Keele St, or a little further South, at Lawrence Ave, it would have been in the delivery coverage area of A-Way Express Courier in Toronto. A-Way is a non-profit courier founded and staffed by survivors of mental health challenges who use public transit to make deliveries. Two cases of brochures would definitely have been a challenge, but three small boxes of business cards weighs less than my full water bottle.

Here’s a video about A-Way Express Courier:

It’s been about 45 days since the website and mailing list were established. I started this up because I sensed a pent-up demand and serious interest, yet nothing was available.

Sixty people signing up for the discussion mailing list in 45 days certainly validates my hunch.

Until recently, the number one position Google search for “passive house canada” was a blog post of mine from a year ago titled “Canada lacking in Passive House movement“. Even that generated several email inquires, including some from the press. I’m happy to report that article has fallen to the fourth spot on the Google search results page.

My goal here is organization-building in whatever form it takes to bring Passive House to Canada, to do it well, and with expedience. I don’t see myself as profiting from this, as my particular business interest lies in energy reductions of existing larger buildings, facilities and plants. I just want to see Passive House happen here.

The work on organization-building continues. Please join us on the mailing list if you’re interested in seeing PassivHaus come to Canada.

(Updated Nov 4 2009)

There was a bit of a stir lately within the building science online communities when a well-known and respected building scientist published a review of the Passive House standard.

John Straube published a review of the Passive House standard on compared to standards and practices applicable in the U.S. and Canada, available at In it Straube takes a close look at Passive House from a North American context, comparing it to other low-energy building systems for cold climates.

Katrin Klingenberg of Passive House Institute U.S. posted a lengthy response to John Straube’s article at, correcting a few misunderstandings.

On, there is an initial discussion and reaction to Straube’s article at Later, Marc Rosenbaum and David White wrote a point-by-point clarification of why the Passive House Standard sets a worthy goal for North America at

Also on, Martin Holladay and John Straube discuss the lowest cost approach, which differs from Passive House. The lowest cost approach improves the building envelope until the incremental cost of further improvements would be more expensive than photovoltaic technology. Passive House on the other hand looks at absolute energy consumption of the building envelope, so in a sense it is more “future-proof” than a house with more technology, and is likely the best choice for a future with constrained energy supply. Plus, it is much less expensive to add PV later than to retrofit additional underslab insulation. See

And finally, John Straube clarified his position in the whole discussion at

If you are interested in helping bring Passive House to Canada, visit and join the email discussion list.

Elfstrom Engineering can help your business obtain financial incentives under the ecoENERGY Retrofit Incentive for Buildings program. We often get questions as to how it works. Sometimes the extra effort to obtain the incentive isn’t worth the money that you get back. Larger buildings benefit from economies of scale and are more likely to take advantage of the ecoENERGY Retrofit Incentive for Buildings. Assuming all the eligibility requirements are met and a contribution agreement is signed, under this program Natural Resources Canada will provide a one-time incentive amount of $10 per GJ (gigajoule) of energy saved in a typical year, to a maximum of $50,000.

Grant or Incentive?

To be clear, the ecoENERGY Retrofit Incentive for Buildings program is an incentive that depends on predicted energy savings, not a grant. The homeowner’s program, ecoENERGY Retrofit for Homes, is a grant, a fixed amount for installing certain upgrades and reducing air infiltration in a household.

Cost of applying

An energy audit for a small commercial building under 6,400 ft2 by a NRCan Certified Energy Advisor for homes is likely going to cost between $900 and $1,800.

An energy audit for a building over 6,400 ft2 must be done by a licensed Professional Engineer or Certified Energy Manager (not a homes energy advisor) and will likely cost between $3,000 and $6,000, depending on the size and complexity of the building.

It may take a couple of hours to fill out the forms so be sure to add in an hourly rate for yourself as well as for the energy auditor.

Quick incentive estimation

Estimate how many dollars of natural gas you will save every year after the retrofit. The incentive will be roughly this same amount. It’s like getting an extra 12 months of savings. If you expect to save $10,000 of natural gas a year, your incentive will be about $10,000.

Estimate how many dollars of electricity you will save every year after the retrofit. Your incentive will be roughly 35% of that amount. It’s like getting an extra 4 months of savings. If you can expect to save $10,000 of electricity a year, your incentive will be about $3,500.

Add these two together and compare with the costs of applying to see if you will benefit from the incentive.

Similar calculations can be made for propane, oil, biomass and other purchased energy.

In more detail…

Estimating Incentive Amount for Conserving Natural Gas

Natural gas typically costs you between $8 and $12 per GJ.

Determine how much you are paying for natural gas per GJ using the following method: Take a bill for a typical month of consumption of natural gas. Divide the dollar amount by the consumption in m3 for that month, and multiply by 26.137. This is how much you are paying per GJ of gas consumed.

An example using real numbers:

In February 2009, ABC Condo Corporation paid $15,462 for 37846 m3. Dividing cost by consumption and multiplying the answer by 26.137, they determine that they are paying $10.68/GJ. If they spent $91,000 last year for natural gas, that means they consumed $91,000÷$10.68/GJ = 8521 GJ. A boiler retrofit is estimated to lower their gas consumption by 10%, so they can expect to save 852 GJ. The one-time government incentive will be $8521 and the upgrade will save them $9099 every year.

ABC Condo Corporation realizes that it’s very worthwhile to pay for an energy audit and apply for the ecoENERGY incentive.

Estimating Incentive Amount for Conserving Electricity

Electricity typically costs about $28 per GJ, or $0.10 per kWh.

Determine how much you are paying for electricity using the following method: Take a bill for a typical month of consumption of electricity. Divide the dollar amount by the consumption in kWh or that month, and multiply by 277.8. This is how much you are paying per GJ of electricity consumed.

An example using real numbers:

In February 2009, XYZ Rentals Inc. paid $8550 for 84572 kWh. Dividing cost by consumption and multiplying the answer by 277.8, they determine that they are paying $28.08/GJ. If they spent $113,209 last year for electricity, that means they consumed $113,209÷$28.08/GJ = 4032 GJ. Upgrades to lighting and fans is estimated to lower their electricity consumption by 10%, so they can expect to save 403 GJ. The one-time government incentive will be $4030 and the upgrade will save them $11,320 every year.

XYZ Rentals Inc.  realizes that it’s probably worthwhile to pay for an energy audit and apply for the ecoENERGY incentive, because the incentive amounts will likely cover the cost of the energy audit and paperwork. In addition, the energy audit will very likely find other opportunities to save money and increase the incentive amount, such as with natural gas. Sometimes an energy audit pays for itself by discovering utility billing errors. Even if XYZ Rentals Inc. decides to not apply for the incentive, the retrofit should still go ahead if the project has as a favourable internal rate of return.

What the government gets in return

The federal government has a commitment under the Kyoto protocol to reduce green house gas emssions. If they assume the project lasts 20 years, they are paying you $10 per tonne of verified CO2 equivalent emission reductions for natural gas, or $8.50 per tonne of CO2e for electricity, which is a great deal. Even if the project lasts only five years, they are still only paying $40 per tonne, an amount suggested by some governments as a reasonable carbon tax or offset amount.


If you’re the owner of a small building and you’re ready to start a retrofit project immediately, you probably won’t benefit from the ecoENERGY Commercial Retrofit Incentive, and you may not need a full energy audit. The earlier the project is completed the sooner your energy savings will improve cash flow. For small buildings sometimes only major retrofit projects such as installing a ground source heat pump or a full wall insulation upgrade will yield energy savings high enough to make the incentive worthwhile.

If you’re the owner of a medium-sized building, do a quick check to see if it’s worthwhile applying for the incentive by comparing anticipated savings to audit and paperwork costs. An energy audit will usually pay for itself in other identified savings, and will help you identify other incentives & grants and savings.

Larger buildings almost always benefit from the incentive and from an energy audit. However, very large buildings over 20,000 m2 (215,278 ft2) are ineligible.

Even if you’re ineligible for the incentive because of other restrictions, such as owning a building less than five years old, you should still consider an energy audit. On medium sized and larger buildings an energy audit typically pays for itself in a very short time with very little additional expenditure.


For more information, you can visit:
Fact Sheet:
Application Guide:

Being concerned about resource depletion such as peak oil, peak natural gas, and overall energy production and natural resource decline, I thought it would be interesting to see if the Ontario Building Code acknowledges these very serious and imminent issues. I say imminent, because even if a resource peaks and enters decline 25 years from now, the buildings being constructed today under the current Code will still be around, consuming what’s left, and will have contributed to the problem in the first place. The same can be applied to climate change, given that construction and building operations account for 40% of greenhouse gas production.

The Ontario Building Code (2006) establishes its goals in Division A. It has overall objectives that the Code seeks to achieve and then functional statements relating to those objectives. Both the objectives and functional statements are inherently qualitative, meaning no numbers or other facts. This is an appropriate way to separate goals from the solutions to those goals.

In Division A Table, objective OR2 is “Resource Conservation – Energy Conservation”. It states:

An objective of this Code is to limit the probability that, as a result of the design or construction of a building, a natural resource will be exposed to an unacceptable risk of depletion or the capacity of the infrastructure supporting the use of the resource will be exposed to an unnatural risk of being exceeded, caused by the consumption of energy.

Then the related functional statement F131 in table indicates that statements in the building code relating to resource conservation are designed “To limit excessive energy consumption“.

That’s interesting. The entire goal of the energy components of the building code boils down to resource depletion or the ability to produce and deliver the resource, and not to use it all up too quickly. But notice the lack of numbers.

Who defines what an unacceptable risk is? Well, Appendix A comes along and says Division B with all of its prescriptive requirements forming the bulk of the Building Code that everyone talks about is considered to be boundaries between acceptable risk and unacceptable risk. That is, “the risk remaining once the acceptable solutions in Division B have been implemented represents the residual level of risk deemed to be acceptable by the broad base of Canadians who have taken part in the consensus process used to develop the Code.”

There we have it. The key to changing the building code is to somehow get into the consensus process. But how does it work?

Here is my understanding of the process. The Province of Ontario sets out in legislation in the Building Code Act the various powers that the regulations under the act will have. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing administers those regulations in the documents comprising the Ontario Building Code. It’s good to leave an act as general as possible because it’s hard to change an act, while regulations can be changed without having to pass through the legislature.

The Building Advisory Council is the vehicle by which the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing solicits strategic advice on policy, technical and administrative issues related to the Building Code Act and the Building Code regulations. The terms of reference of the council is available in a PDF document on the Ministry web site.

Those terms of reference spell out the organizations who may have a designate to be on the Building Advisory Council, although the Minister can appoint additional members at will. To find out who the current designates are, have a look at the most recent minutes, available at the Building Advisory Council’s index page on the Ministry web site.

Following the chain of command approach, as an engineer I would contact the designate for Professional Engineers Ontario, the designate from the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers, or the representative from the Consulting Engineers of Ontario. A contractor might contact the representative from the Ontario General Contractors Association, and/or the designate for the Council of Ontario Construction Associations.

Any individual can always make submissions directly to the Ministry or the Minister, without having to do through the Building Advisory Council. But having a recommendation endorsed by the committee is helpful.

However, the Building Advisory Council is only an advisory panel. The Ministry as a whole, and ultimately the Minister, can do what they please. They can take recommendations under advisement and then turn around at make a step in a different direction, for political or other reasons. I’m sure when the engineers had an issue with Building Code Act about jurisdiction between it and the Professional Engineers Act, their complaints were dutifully passed along through the Building Advisory Council to the Ministry, which were then dutifully ignored. Nothing was changed until PEO applied to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice in 2006 and won in May 2007.

In conclusion, to reform the Building Code such that Division B significantly raises the bar on energy performance of buildings and in effect lowers the threshold for the acceptable risk of resource depletion, we need to work with the Building Advisory Council members, the Acting Director of the Buildings and Development Branch as well as other people from the Building and Development Branch who are present at the BAC meetings, the Minister, and finally the Premier of Ontario. It wouldn’t hurt to work with your local Member of Provincial Parliament too. And if all else fails and you think you have a case, go to court.

The Ontario Building Code (2006), as with as all provincial acts and regulations, is available for free in a Word document on e-Laws but the online version does not contain the contents of the Volume 2, such as the supplementary standards.

Tiffany Otis & Christoph Reinhart of Harvard have published a presentation-document “Daylighting rules of thumb: A design Sequence for Diffuse Daylighting” (PDF). Really, it’s more than just rules of thumb. There’s geometric calculations and multiple steps. This is a great way to start off a building design with daylighting in mind.


Have you ever gone to all the work of creating a building energy model in RETScreen, only to be left wondering how to convert those annual gigajoules into a specific equipment capacity?

This situation can occur when the capital cost of installing a greener heating system, such as a “geothermal” ground source heat pump, depends on the design heat loss, or required capacity. A geothermal system can be so expensive that on a lifecycle cost basis it’s one of the few heating systems where it’s good practice to equipment for less than what’s needed under design day conditions, by up to 30% less.

First, you need to make sure that you have completed a full building energy model. You should also be familiar with the design heat loss concept and how it is calculated. Beware the programmer’s motto: garbage in = garbage out. For existing buildings if at all possible, verify the model against actual energy bills and historical weather data. To use historical weather data, overwrite it in the climate data section on the Start worksheet.

On the climate data screen, make a note of the annual degree day information:

Annual heating degree days in RETScreen

Annual heating degree days in RETScreen

If you have specific degree days to use here, by all means enter them. RETScreen uses 18 C for heating degree day values. Simply erase the whole column and put the annual degree days all into January:

Using a custom annual degree day number in RETScreen

Using a custom annual degree days value in RETScreen

Next, on the Energy Model worksheet make the following changes:

  • Set all schedules for 24/7 and occupancy rate at 24 hours a day all year
  • Set Temperature – space heating to 21.0 C
  • Set Heating/cooling changeover temperature to 18.0 C
  • Select Energy – base case in the Show field. Use GJ as the reporting number, as this will give you the best accuracy.
Preparing RETScreen Energy Model worksheet for design day heating calculation

Preparing RETScreen Energy Model worksheet for design day heating calculation

Now you’ll need the reported heating energy required due to the building envelope.  Use the sum of Heating GJ numbers, or better still, add up only those that relate to space heat. Typically this means the Building Envelope, Ventilation and Lights. Exclude Hot Water because it goes down the drain.

Check to see if your Electrical Equipment is marked as having an effect on space heat or not. It’s up to you. Since I place lighting loads in the Electrical Equipment section, I include it as having an effect on space heat.

Next, open up a regular spreadsheet. Obtain a whole-building UA factor by multiplying your heating GJ by 1E9, and then dividing by: (heating degree days * 24 * 3600).

Multiply the result by your desired delta T in degrees Celsius. That is, your desired indoor design temperature minus desired outdoor design temperature. Use whatever you want or are required to under code.

The result is the instantaneous (steady-state) design heat loss in Watts. Divide by 1000 to get kW, and then multiply by 3412 to get the design heat loss in BTU/h.

That’s it in words, here it is with numbers.

Given: 4194 Heating Degree Days, heat energy 522 GJ, outdoor design temperature of -23 C, and indoor design temperature of 21 C.

Heat loss = (522 * 1E9 / (4194 * 24 * 3600)) * (21 – (-23)) / 1000

Heat loss = 63.4 kW

Multiply by 3412 to get BTU/h:

Heat loss = 216,267 BTU/h

Now take this number to your mechanical contractor and find out how much it would roughly cost to install this capacity to complete your financial analysis. If you are considering capital-intensive equipment at less than full capacity, you can use a Heating model in RETScreen to specify an undersized heat pump that still provides for over 90% of the annual heat load.

Beware, RETScreen rounds its values to the nearest GJ, which for small buildings can make the design heat loss number very uncertain.

Finally, keep in mind that RETScreen is based on metric calculations, and accuracy drops in some unit conversions.

Two houses of equal area but different shape

Two houses of equal area but different shape

Architects designing custom homes often seem to go overboard on the complexity of the shape, seemingly unaware of the impacts on construction cost and operational cost. Let’s look at the walls of two custom homes of equal floor area but different shape.

Both homes are 5400 square feet on one level, nice sprawling ranch homes for a well-to-do business person. The first thought is that the house is too big, and it is, but this not an unusual size in the area of custom homes. It’s still well within Part 9 of the Ontario Building Code, which deals with houses and other small buildings.

House A was designed with a highly irregular shape to add “architectural interest”. It follows the room layout and offers more views of the local scenery. From the plans we count 56 corners.  This is not unusual for this size of house. If you walked around the perimeter of house A with a tape measure it would be 600 feet.

House B was designed by a home designer-builder who doesn’t know a lick about heat loss either, but didn’t want to do all the design work of a complicated home, especially the roof, and wanted a simple L-shape so that it would be faster to construct. House B has a perimeter of 370 feet and just 6 corners.

Assume the walls are 9 feet high. Let’s also assume an insulation R-value of R-20 for the walls and R-2.00 for windows. In reality the effective R-value for house A will be lower because of the extra wood framing material used to create the more complicated shape, but let’s hold as many things constant as we can for this exercise. Also assume that the windows are 40% of the wall area. Each of the two homes will be built in Toronto, which has 6426 heating degree days (in degrees Fahrenheit).

The way to calculate heat loss for a year is with the equation heat = 1/R * area * heating degree days * 24 hours per day.

When this is all multiplied out, the energy lost during the heating season is 192 million BTU’s for house A and 118 million BTU’s for house B.

Let’s put some dollars to that. Converting to kilowatt-hours the amount of heat is 56140 kWh for house A and 34620 kWh for house B.  For simplicity’s sake let’s say you’re paying $0.10 per kilowatt-hour after taking into account the distribution fee, debt retirement charge, taxes, and so on, and you decide to use electric baseboard heat that consumes 10% more energy than actually required, because of delays in responding to the thermostat’s call for heat. The annual heating cost of just the walls and windows is $6,175 for house A and $3,808 for house B.

That’s an added cost of of $2,367 per year, every year, for having a complicated shape instead of a simpler one. The same floor area, same wall insulation, and same window quality. If you prefer the environmental route, that’s 4.6 more metric tonnes of CO2 per year, about the emissions of an average passenger vehicle.

What about equipment costs? If it was heated with a furnace or hot water boiler the capacity of the equipment would need to be correspondingly larger and thus more expensive. That wouldn’t be too much—but move to a geothermal system and look out! It could be $12,000 more in ground loop installation costs and larger equipment.

I’ve only looked at conductive heat loss. The most diligent builder is going to have a great deal of difficulty providing a continuous air barrier with a more complicated housing plan. If the builder managed to pay very close attention to detail, even if the normalized leakage area (expressed in square inches of hole per square foot of wall) were the same between the two houses, the equivalent leakage area would be proportionally larger. Given that infiltration commonly accounts for 30% of heat loss, the impact is significant.

Then there’s the foundation required to support the wall. Ben Polley of Evolve Builders Group in Guelph, Ontario, tells me that in his estimation, every corner of a foundation wall adds the equivalent of 5 linear feet to the cost due to formwork and labour. Assuming 10 inch thick walls, 7 feet high and $80 per cubic yard of poured foundation wall, it would cost $15,210 for the house A wall foundation and $6,913 for the house B wall foundation, a capital cost increase of $8,297.

Don’t even get me started on the complicated roof design that goes on these complicated houses. Ask your local roof framer.

The take away from this evaluation is that “corners cost energy” and “corners cost money”. Lots of money.