By Andrew Snook

Every fall, universities across Canada welcome thousands of new students excited to begin their post-secondary education. This fall, the University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) will open a new first-year Passive House student residence.

After more than three years under construction, the new UTSC student residence will be ready for operation. Built to the Passive House high-performance building standard, the new structure is designed with a variety of low-energy features including high-efficiency insulation and triple-glazed windows, and a building system expected to reduce energy consumption between 40 to 60 per cent when compared to conventional buildings.

“When we started on this journey, we knew we needed to build more student residences. And whenever we do projects, we’re always looking for ways to highlight an element of sustainability,” says Andrew Arifuzzaman, chief administrative officer for UTSC.

He says the university is always looking for ways to reduce heating and cooling costs, and implemented many sustainable technologies into the residence that were also built into one of the UTSC’s most recent buildings, the Environmental Science and Chemistry Building.

“We came up with a number of innovations in that project, including geothermal wells, earth tubes and air recycling,” Arifuzzaman says. “On the student residence it was a bit of a unique opportunity because you have 746 new people every year living in a building. So, we were looking at Passive House as an option.”

The new, nine-storey, 24,620-sq.m. student residence will house 746 first-year students, doubling the capacity of the current residences on campus, and offering a combination of single, double, and accessible suites. The residence will feature an energy efficient cafeteria, common area for learning workshops, two suites for visiting scholars, a dining room, administrative offices, and several mixed-use spaces. The university is also planning to add a rooftop garden and terrace to the new residence.

“Our first-year students will be living in this residence. There are common spaces in each wing and lounge spaces on each floor, and then there’s a common cafeteria where the whole community can come together. We haven’t been able to offer this kind of residence for our students before,” Arifuzzaman says. “Now, everybody is clustered, where first-year students are together, while building academic communities. Students will be living on a floor that has students in different programs living and learning together. It’s going to create a whole first-year community feel that has been lacking on the campus.”

Passive House power

While designing the new residence, university officials identified that many of the basic principles around how to build an efficient building have been usurped by technology,

“We just add better or more efficient heating systems or more efficient air conditioning systems, and it’s all technology based,” explains Arifuzzaman. “But at the same time, we had an ice storm in Toronto about 10 years ago, and we lost all power on campus for three or four days. And because they had prioritized the hospitals and nursing homes, we couldn’t get diesel deliveries. We had students living on campus and we couldn’t heat or cool their spaces in an effective way. So, we thought that maybe Passive House was an approach to take, where you’re taking dollars out of the mechanical systems and investing them in the envelope of the building.”

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Arifuzzaman says no developer has built a building using Passive House technologies at this scale in this kind of environment in Toronto. The university hopes that by producing a passive house residence at this scale, developers will see the benefits of this type of construction.

“If I’m a condo developer, I’m not taking the risk of building the first passive house, because there’s risk for how it gets built, what the supply chain looks like, and are there qualified people to build the building?” Arifuzzaman says. “We thought, as a university, that’s something that we can de-risk for the market. By building at this scale, take on some of those risks… we could begin to change the industry.”

Top to Bottom: The new UTSC student residence will house 746 first-year students and offer a combination of single, double, and accessible suites. Looking for ways to reduce heating and cooling costs, UTSC implemented many sustainable technologies into its new residence. (Pomerleau)

UTSC also hopes that offering this type of residence experience to first-year students will help them see the value of Passive House standards when it comes time for them to purchase their first homes.

“Now we will have 746 people a year who are going to be living in a passive house. In the span of a decade, there will be approximately 7,500 people who will be putting pressure on developers to build more viable Passive Houses. And we’ve kind of de-risked the marketplace for some of those developers,” Arifuzzaman says.

Passive House construction

The construction of the new residence was performed by Pomerleau, one of Canada’s largest construction firms. The company was awarded the design-bridge-build contract to help achieve the sustainable architectural design and energy efficiency standards required for Passive House Certification. The timing of the contract created several hurdles for the general contractor to overcome.

“We submitted our bid in November 2019, and then we were negotiating the contract in March of 2020, and then the pandemic hit,” explains Michael Faustini, project director for Pomerleau. “Navigating a pandemic was a first for us. So, we had to solve a lot of contractual uncertainty, but we were able to overcome that. And I think that was the first step towards a good relationship with the university.”

Building the new residence to Passive House Standards was an absolute must for the university.

“It was non-negotiable for them,” Faustini says. “They had spent so much time and investment in understanding Passive House, what it entailed, designing for it, that they didn’t want to let that go, it was important to them. That just speaks to their commitment for not just sustainability—because that’s a buzzword—but in their case, I think they know that if the university or the institutions don’t do it first, the private sector is likely not going to be the ones to do it first. And so, they have to be the leaders and bring down costs that way.”

Michael Faustini, project director for Pomerleau. (Pomerleau)

Building the first building of this size to Passive House Standards required a significant learning curve.

“The biggest learning curve was the attention to detail and quality control that was above and beyond anything else we’ve done before,” Faustini says. “Maybe we’ve done it, for example, for laboratories or high-performance buildings, but in the case of Passive House, especially with the envelope of the building, all the emphasis, or most of the emphasis, was on that.”

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He says this type of construction required attention to certain details that normally would not require the same attention.

“For example, the types of screws that subcontractors were using to fasten their brackets to the building were scrutinized like never before,’” Faustini says. “We spent about six months designing the details around the windows, which is extremely unusual, just to get it right and to minimize the energy loss. So, between the architects and the consultants and the manufacturers, we spent an enormous amount of time just on that one detail.”

The windows for the project were pre-certified to the Passive House standard by the manufacturers and sourced from the United States after being vetted for thermal performance. Close to 800 triple-glazed windows were pre-tested in the factory before being shipped to site and then re-tested on site to validate compliance.

He says Pomerleau erred on the side of extreme caution when constructing and designing the residence.

“Certain things were not absolutely necessary but needed to be done to create a buffer to make sure that we weren’t getting too close to the compliance limits,” Faustini says. “Because we were working during the pandemic, everything was still mostly virtual. So, we went back and forth several times with documentation. The subcontractors would submit documents of what they were planning on doing, and then the Passive House consultant would come back and there would be markups all over the pages in red. It was like getting an F on a test. To address this, we built a full-scale mock-up of the envelope onsite, so anytime there was a question or concern, we had a physical model to quickly reference. It helped expedite the review and approval period a lot.”

Another challenge for Pomerleau was educating their teams and the various trades on building and installing to Passive House Standards.

“That was a huge component. And it was a big risk, because if we didn’t get the certification, reputationally, that would’ve been damaging. So, that was number one. Even if COVID didn’t exist, that would’ve been the major challenge,” Faustini says.

Adding to those challenges was navigating a world in the grip of a pandemic.

“With the COVID situation, we were dealing with major supply issues and material delays, but we still managed,” Faustini says. “We’re going to essentially finish on time despite having some challenges to overcome. We started later because of city permits, dealing with material supply challenges, and union labour strikes last year.”

Passive House features

One of the most important features of a Passive House building is the building envelope.

“That’s probably the most important thing because you must reduce the amount of energy loss for the skin of the building. And then in terms of energy efficiency, the mechanical system is designed to recuperate heat and recuperate energy. We have a pit in the basement that uses the hot water from the showers and uses that as a heat pump source in the basement—same thing with the kitchen exhaust. The heat from the kitchen, the cooking at the commercial kitchen is reused as much as possible to preheat some of the exterior air,” Faustini says.

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There are also energy recovery units installed on the roof of the residence.

“The distribution of heating and cooling in the building is done locally, as opposed to doing it at a centralized location on the roof through the air handling units. It’s preheated, but then most of the temperature control happens at the suite by the students,” Faustini says. “Depending on the location of the suite, there might be certain temperature demands. So essentially, you’re not paying or consuming unnecessary heat if you were to distribute the entire building at the same temperature, for example, or at a general temperature that there may be some cases where you’re heating, and then locally, you’re cooling. It’s all being done through fan cool units at the suites.”

Building sustainable relationships

For Pomerleau, working under the design-bridge-build model removed some of the uncertainty around building to Passive House Standards.

“UTSC designed the project up to a certain point to make sure all their stakeholders had given the green light to say, ‘Okay, we know what the layout is going to be. We know the number of beds. We know the administrative spaces we need,’ et cetera,” Faustini explains. “When they got the feedback from their stakeholders completed, which normally happens later during the design progression stage of a design-build, that meant they went far enough with the design to avoid major program changes down the road.”

Having the design approved at this stage reduced some of the risk for the bidders as there was enough comfort that meeting Passive House Standards was possible.

“If [the University] would have forced Passive House on us with no design in place and we had to design and build it from scratch, we would have said there’s a tremendous amount of uncertainty. So, they wanted to bring it to a point where they felt that the risk was minimized,” Faustini explains. “Once they had brought it to that point, then they wanted a turnkey solution and for Pomerleau to take it from where it was, finish the design and build it for them. And I think that was a really good model for this new realm.”

While the first group of students are set to move into the residence in September 2023, the partnership between the University and Pomerleau will continue. The contractor was recently awarded another contract by the university to construct a 14-storey, above grade educational facility at Devonshire Place, south of Bloor Street in Toronto. This building is expected to be the tallest cross-laminated timber (CLT) and concrete hybrid building in North America. The first timber is to be delivered to the site in November 2023. 

[This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 edition of ReNew Canada]

Andrew Snook is a freelance business-to-business writer based in Mississauga, Ont.

Featured image: After three years under construction, the new UTSC student residence—built to the Passive House high-performance building standard—will soon be ready for operation. (Pomerleau)


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