How evolv1’s Net-Positive Office Building Propels Ontario’s Energy Transition

The Record just published a news article about the Cora Group’s evolv1 multi-tenant office building located in Waterloo’s David Johnston Research and Technology Park.  Click here to view the article on the Record.

A new study out of the University of Waterloo shows that operational and data-driven improvements have played a role in the three-storey building being on target to generate more energy than it consumes, a feat that’s become increasingly significant in a world more closely bound to climate change targets and hybrid work models.

“The good news story is that basically they achieved their design objectives,” said Paul Parker, a professor at the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development who co-authored a study about the building’s performance gap that appears in the Journal of Energy and Buildings.

Despite being outfitted in solar and environmental design features that were awarded the highest possible LEED certification licensed by the Canada Green Building Council, evolv1 still needed some data-driven, human intervention to realize its overall goal. Operations staff upgraded pumps and trialed new measures, such as adjusting heating, ventilation and air conditioning schedules.

According to the research, performance improvements resulted in a 15 per cent reduction in energy consumption without compromising comfort levels and evolv1 is now on track to producing between five and eight per cent more clean energy than its consumption and adding it to the Ontario grid. The building that’s designed to hold about 200 employees is 95 per cent leased by tenants, including Text Now, Ernst & Young and Sustainable Waterloo Region, but employees are currently occupying only about 30 per cent of the space, said Monika Mikhail, a graduate student and lead researcher.

The study used 2019 energy meter data as the baseline for energy consumption; however, the number of people inside the building doesn’t actually have much bearing on the energy used for heating or cooling, noted Mikhail. Other factors like lighting, plug loads and sunshine have a greater influence on the energy draw and the amount of power generated by the building’s solar panels.

According to data from September 2020 to September 2021, with fewer people in the office due to COVID-19, evolv1 produced about 30 per cent more energy than it consumed overall, providing 204,000 kWh of energy back to the grid, enough to power 21 homes for a year.

“COVID was a big surprise to all of us, but in a sense, it was also a good experiment,” Parker said. “We always ask the question — how big a factor are the people in the building and we got to have that experiment of removing most of the people,” he said. “It really just shows that operating the building uses a lot of energy, and it’s now important that we rethink about how we use all of these pieces as we go back into offices.”

Office buildings are typically not energy efficient and globally contribute to nearly a third of greenhouse gas emissions, from construction to end of life. “We certainly have the ability to build sustainably in North America, so I think the message for me is that that we can do it,” said Adrian Conrad, the Cora Group’s chief operating officer. “Our goal was to develop a net-positive energy building and we’re quite proud to be first in Canada to achieve that.”

Parker said the model can play a crucial role in helping achieve climate change goals in the future. “It’s practical in terms of, yes, we have the technology, yes, we have the skills, and yes, we’ve proven that that it makes a profit for developers and investors who are in it for the long haul,” Parker said. “For our 2050 climate goals, most of our buildings are already here, and we want to make sure that the new ones that we build aren’t making problems worse.”

However, Parker expects the commercial market will be restructuring for a while with people spending less time in the office and hybrid work models here to stay. The R&T Park in Waterloo is anticipated to be home to the Cora Group’s next sustainable development, evolv2, which will be located on the opposite side of Wes Graham Parkway, adjacent to evolv1. Leasing proposals are currently being accepted, according to an online brochure.

“I’m going to be honest, COVID has put a wrench in new office development,” Conrad conceded. “It’s going to be a little while until we figure out where that market is.”