Building the Pathway to Net Zero Ready

Iain MacFayden headshot
Iain MacFayden, ZGF Vancouver

ZGF Architects is a design firm with an intentionally diverse portfolio that includes health care and research facilities, academic buildings, mixed-use developments, corporate campuses, museums, transportation facilities, and ecodistricts. A practice with more than 700 professionals and offices in Vancouver, British Columbia; Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City, it has an ethos of collaboration, design excellence, stewardship of our natural and built environment, and exceptional client service. The following is an interview with Iain MacFayden, associate principal of ZGF Vancouver

Why Passive House?

Our investment in private Passive House training is part of a larger ZGF initiative called Building and Project Performance (BPP). BPP was established in response to the city of Vancouver’s Zero Emissions Building Plan, the 2032 changes to the province of British Columbia’s building code, and the developer-driven market that has evolved over the last 15 years in Vancouver. 

The challenge with a developer-driven market is that it commodifies services; reduces the value of architectural design and consultants; and pushes everyone to reduce innovation, prices, and the ability to strategize building innovation over the long term. In a developer-driven market, the focus is on the next project at the best cost. 

We decided that we did not want to operate in this space. Our vision and practice are to operate in the margins, creating opportunities and taking on the most challenging projects. As municipal and provincial policy changes began pointing the building industry toward zero emissions and net zero ready buildings, we saw an opportunity to position ourselves in the marketplace, establish specific goals, and continue our legacy of high-performing buildings. 

Under the Building Performance stream of BPP, we partnered with Passive House Canada to develop private trainings with the goals 1) to have 40 Certified Passive House Designers in-house by the end of 2019, and 2) to ingrain the principles associated with high-performing buildings into our daily architectural practice. 

Who are you educating? 

Our private trainings have been developed to include our staff, consultant partners, government officials, and clients. We have brought these groups together via our training because we understand the necessity of knowledge dissemination, transparent learning, and interdisciplinary practice to embed the principles of Passive House in ZGF and in our projects. 

We are clear that if we want to make transformational change in the local industry, we must approach this from a non-siloed approach. By gathering stakeholders to share in the learning process, we all garner more from that learning. We learn more from what others do not know than we would learn by just focusing on what we don’t know. By having a multidisciplinary approach to learning, the questions that consultants pose trigger new thoughts and new ways of thinking about the projects in our staff, and the presence of government officials provides insight into industry challenges related to policy change. 

From a client perspective, we can then understand their perceived limitations of Passive House and high-performance buildings and can better develop strategies to highlight the values of these approaches. From this understanding we can overcome barriers and boundaries and help clients understand high-performance buildings and add market value to these buildings. 

What has this allowed you to do, and how does it set you apart?

One of the biggest benefits has been the way we work with consultants on projects. Historically, consultants are not brought in until the later stages of a project, with the result commonly being a total redesign. Now we bring consultants in earlier in the process—not to ask them for drawings, but rather for them to contribute their expertise and experience. Unlike the developer-driven model, which limits expertise and silos experience, learning from each other is a different way of thinking—one that helps us innovate to deliver to our clients the best projects at the end of the day. This is a change in the marketplace, and the developers we work with have seen a distinct difference in the projects we deliver. This has allowed us to develop lasting partnerships, design better buildings, and establish long-term working relationships with industry stakeholders. 

As a firm, we have a culture of continuous improvement. Our approach to transparent learning has given us an opportunity for market differentiation, positioning us as thought and practice leaders in the field. We are in a position where we understand the long-term directives of the government and are responding now. And because we can see where we must get to, we are now better able to help clients navigate this new era of buildings and open doors to new and exciting projects that are challenging. 

How has this made you better?

To begin, we’ve future-proofed our staff with the tools needed to design and construct resilient and high-performing buildings. We’ve ensured that they have the training they need to rely on themselves (rather than exclusively on consultants), self-govern, and experience excitement about the jobs they do and the projects they attract. This gives staff confidence, and ultimately translates into our relationships with clients—building on that ethos of being a trusted client advisor—because our staff are equipped with the tools to act in our clients’ interests when working with consultants. Additionally, our staff feel valued, trusted, and empowered, fuelling their enthusiasm for the work. 

Our trainings have also helped us to address the question: How do you make high-performance buildings relevant in a market that doesn’t care? 

One part of addressing this question is having more than one person in the office who is responsible for answering all the questions. Sharing knowledge across the firm breathes life into our work, and that knowledge becomes a living organism that you can draw experiences and perspectives from, and grow new value into these buildings with. This builds initiative, becomes personal, part of the firm’s culture, and informs how we interact with clients, increasing the value proposition we bring our clients. In this way you can move your building from a class B to a class A just from the perspective of value that you are able to bring the client. 

What is next for ZGF?

The ultimate goal on a project-by-project basis is to achieve higher levels of building performance at no additional cost, while meeting the same delivery schedule. Our innovative approach to firm-wide knowledge dissemination is combined with additional training, and what we call Construction Innovation—a stream under BPP designed to evaluate our delivery process, available materials, and construction methods to further enhance the high-performance-buildings narrative. 

We’ve designed training that leverages the knowledge from Passive House Canada that is relevant, is immediately applicable, supports a more-efficient project delivery process, and informs a set of design tools and design performance pathways for our architectural team, while instilling a design practice culture that revolves around high-performance buildings. From this we have grown to include dynamic modelling to evaluate cooling, look at realistic end-user plug loads, and use real-time and projected climate data. 

In Construction Innovation, we commit to finding efficiencies across the board. By understanding the design goal with an attention to finding efficiencies in the way we deliver on projects, we find ways to reduce time lines and add value to high-performance buildings at no extra cost. 

This kind of philosophy and approach to buildings is a way of thinking, and a complete cultural shift in the British Columbia construction industry. We are creating the future now, and that is hugely invigorating for me. This change is creating opportunities at two levels. We see a change in our opportunities in the industry in terms of what we are trying to do. And on a personal level, it’s an opportunity to work with dynamic and collaborative individuals, which means we get to learn, and all be part of this amazing process. 

Change may not be easy, but embracing change allows you to take control, and having control allows you to envision the future.

Zero Emissions Building Exchange
Five Principles of Passive House Design and Construction