Fin MacDonald

Information on me and my current projects

Category Archives: Nova Scotia Community College

My NSCC Experience

Going back to school was a tough decision. I wasn’t happy in my old career and knew I needed to get out. I looked around at the different college programs that were available. I needed something quick. I already had a 4 year business degree but I needed a skill, otherwise I would be stuck in an office forever. I found the energy sustainability engineering technology program and went for it.

Fast forward 2 years and here I am all finished. I can honestly say that the Nova Scotia Community College taught me just as much in two years as I learned in four years of university. The most important lessons I learned were lessons about myself, and what I was capable of. NSCC strives to build students confidence. This is in stark contrast with universities who force you to compete with each other for ranking, and work hard to weed out the unworthy.

As we grow older we learn in different ways. NSCC uses a completely hands on approach to learning. “Learning by doing.” Granted, there were some theory based courses I had to take but everything was applied to real world projects before the end of the program.  We had a fully functional, state of the art residential building on campus for us to test, monitor, and learn from. One of my final exams was to troubleshoot the building automation system, and my instructor even had his wife come in on exam day to play the role of the angry customer.

My classmates were awesome. We learned just as much from each other as we did from the instructors. In an academic environment without ranking and competition students are much more willing to help each other succeed. As we split up to take on our new careers, I will miss everyone. I hope to get the opportunity to work with some of them again in the future in the working world.

NSCC also has a great international department, and I was fortunate enough to be selected to take part in an international exchange program with students from Ireland and the Netherlands. Learning about energy efficiency in different countries teaches you things that you could never learn at home.

I’m tremendously satisfied with my experience at NSCC, and after graduating with honors I’m tremendously proud as well. I’m looking forward to what comes next.

Ireland PassivHaus Retrofit Report

Last week our Ireland project wrapped up and we submitted our final report and did a presentation to students at I.T. Carlow in Ireland with our findings. Our group consisted of:

  • Myself
  • Karyn Brown from Holland College in PEI
  • Deirdre Cahill from I.T. Carlow in Ireland

The project was to develop a retrofit plan to upgrade and existing Irish home to meet the PassivHaus standards. Our group did an excellent job. Just to recap, the PassivHaus standards require:

Heating: 15 kWh/m2 each year
- or -
Peak Load: 10 W/m2
- and -
Total primary energy use: 120 kWh/m2 each year
- and -
Air tightness less that 0.6 air changes per hour at 50 pascals
- and -
No thermal bridges (The co-efficient of heat transfer needs to be below a certain value)

The real challenge was meeting the heating load. The building was not orientated in a way that it could benefit from passive solar gain from the sun. It had west/east facing front/back/roof. The building had a heating load of 121 kWh/m2, and we needed to reduce this to 15 kWh/m2. We accomplished this with the following upgrades to the building:

  1. 200 mm of rigid polystyrene insulation was added to the exterior of the home
  2. 60 mm of polystyrene beads were pumped into the cavity of the wall
  3. All windows were replaced with triple glazed PassivHaus windows with a U-value of 0.58 W/m2*C
  4. All doors were replaced with PassivHaus certified does with a U-value of 0.58 W/m2*C
  5. 200 mm of rigid polystyrene insulation was added to the attic
  6. An air barrier was added to reduce air infiltration

Once the envelope was upgraded to meet the 15 kWh/m2 requirement the home also met the 120 kWh/m2 total energy use requirement. This is because the occupants didn’t use very much energy at all for appliances. This was discovered through analysis of the energy bills.

The payback for the upgrades was not very favorable. It required over 30 years to reach equity payback, and in the 50 years remaining in the buildings life this produced a net present value (NPV) of over -20,000 Euro. Some of the upgrades had a larger impact for every Euro spent, and we did our best to prioritize them for the client. We concluded that PassivHaus is a great tool for energy efficiency but it is not always practical to upgrade a home all the way to the PassivHaus standard. It is only achievable within a reasonable budget when free solar energy from the sun can be used to reduce the heating load of the building.


I have attached a copy of our final report here. It contains more detailed information about the project and our upgrades.

Students and faculty involved in the Ireland Exchange

Receiving my certificate from Dan O'Sullivan of I.T. Carlow

Cloughjordan Eco-village

Recently I visited Ireland’s most sustainable community, an eco-village located in the town of Cloughjordan. Approximately 80 people live inside the village, and the organization has over 150 members. The company incorporated in 1999 as a not for profit educational charity. The organizational structure they use is a hybrid between a cooperative and a limited company.

The eco-village integrates permaculture, eco-logical design, green production, alternative energy, and community building practices. By doing so they create a modern community where it is easier to live sustainably.

The layout of the eco-village is 1/3 developed with buildings, 1/3 farmed, and 1/3 woodland. Medium density homes with proper solar orientation are used. Maintaining the eco-logical diversity of the area is important to the members, and everyone builds following an ecological charter that was drafted by consensus. Homes are built using several different construction methods, but the most common are cob structures or timber frame with lime and hemp walls. PassivHaus guidelines are followed whenever possible. The community is orientated for walking and cycling, although cars are allowed.

A community farm was created and is cooperatively run. Over 50 households are members. You are not required to be a resident of the eco-village to buy in to the community farm. All produce is placed in a central location where families can pick up what they need, with respect for the quantities available and the others needs.

All heat and hot water is provided by renewable energy. A 500 collector solar hot water system is used, which is the largest residential system in Ireland. Two wood chip boilers use waste biomass from a fence post manufacturing plant to provide the rest of the heating supply. There are plans to add electricity generation in the future, but the approach to that is yet to be decided on.

The eco-village is working to develop green businesses. There are 16 live/work units in the village, as well as an eco-hostel. Micro businesses, educational spaces, and a green enterprise center are also in the village.

The village attracts all kinds of different people from different ages/backgrounds. They are generally interested because of their social, ecological, or organizational views. Most people enjoy the community theme and many new residents move there looking for something different and exciting.

I attended experience day, which included a presentation and a tour. They are held weekly to provide information and to recruit new residents for the village. At the session I found retirees looking for a place to retire, a young family with a young child looking for a high level of community, and some others who were genuinely interested in helping the planet. Attending was a great experience for me because we don’t have communities like this on the east coast of Canada. This type of community would have been similar to what my great grandparents would have lived in, minus of course the technology. It is fascinating that we are headed back in that direction. The sense of community is very special.

The Community Farm

A sustainable home built from Cob

The Village Solar Hot Water System

The Irish Project

I’ve been in Ireland for 3 days now, and its been fantastic so far. The folks at I.T. Carlow have made us feel very welcome. Today we learned what the project was going to be, and did our site visit. The details have changed a little so I’m posting to share the exact specifications.

Tinteán (pronounced Tin-tawn) is an Irish social housing project in Carlow County. It contains several units of semi-detached row houses. Some are for low income and some are for special needs individuals. They were built some time ago and were not built with energy efficiency in mind. The project goal is to suggest improvements to the building, with the goal being to retrofit the home to meet the PassivHaus standard. I talked a little about PassivHaus in a previous post about my Greenbuild experience. The requirements for PassivHaus are:

Heating: 15 kWh/m2 each year
- or -
Peak Load: 10 W/m2
- and -
Total primary energy use: 120 kWh/m2 each year
- and -
Air tightness less that 0.6 air changes per hour at 50 pascals
- and -
No thermal bridges

Since many of the units in Tinteán are the same, any strategies we come up with for one building can be applied to others. There are several units at this location. This project really excites me. Building a PassivHaus makes sense, and the energy savings will pay for the additional costs incurred in just a few short years. This is great but what about the houses that already exist? We have an abundance of homes that will remain standing for many years. Whats saddening is that the majority of people who renovate their home do so to improve the appearance, and almost none do so to improve the efficiency. Only by developing strategies and best practices for upgrading existing buildings can we make a real impact in residential energy use.

The Irish government is light years ahead of Canada in this regard. They have even gone so far as to publish a manual on how to take a typical Irish home and upgrade it to meet the PassivHaus standard (http://www.seai.ie/Publications/Renewables_Publications/Passive_House_Retrofit_Guidelines.pdf). If each home owner had to develop their own procedure it would be a very expensive and risky task to try to upgrade, but by developing best practices the risk element is gone. Each nation has their own style of home construction, and their own materials of choice. Since PassivHaus is a German standard, it needs to be adapted to fit with Irish standards.

Our project will run for 3 weeks, and we will be pressed to deliver great results in such a short time period. I’m up for the challenge. I have broken our project down into several steps, and I’ll develop a work breakdown schedule and a GANTT chart to keep the project on track.

  1. Visit the site and record information about energy usage
  2. Analyze drawings for PassivHaus violations
  3. Create an energy model
  4. Analyze upgrade opportunities
  5. Perform life-cycle analysis
  6. Calculate payback
  7. Prepare report
  8. Prepare presentation
The project will be done in teams. I’m working with Karen Brown from Holland College in PEI Canada and Deirdre Cahill from Ireland. We all have unique skills to bring to the project and I think its going to be a wonderful experience. I really feel that this will be one of my best projects. I feel passionately about upgrading our existing buildings, and think this is a worthy cause. I can’t wait to see our results, and what the other groups come up with.

Tinteán row house

Preparing for the Ireland Project

In less then a month I will be departing for a 3 week project in Carlow, Ireland at I.T. Carlow. Myself and 4 other students from the Nova Scotia Community College will be working with 5 other Canadian students from Holland College in PEI, 5 students from IT Carlow in Ireland, and 5 students from Hanze University in the Netherlands. This will be a similar structure to the project we did in Halifax in the fall of 2011. We will all have different backgrounds. Students involved are studying architecture, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, construction technology, energy sustainability, and other similar programs. The ability to participate in a multi-discipline project before graduation is an incredible experience.

Our project will be to study the Tinteán Coille Community Centre, which is an Irish social housing project in Carlow, and make recommendations to improve its energy efficiency. Specifically, we will be aiming to make the housing project net-zero carbon. This would be considered a very ambitious goal in North America, but in Europe they are leading the rest of the world in efficiency.

During the early stages of the project we will receive a half day training session in PassivHaus. PassivHaus is a German building standard that focuses on extreme energy efficiency and comfort. Our project will be orientated to providing passive solutions rather than active solutions. Passive solutions do not require energy to provide benefits. Active solutions require energy or are heavily based on technology. I have learned about PassivHaus in the past, and I’ve checked out some books on passive solutions to energy efficiency from the NSCC library. I’ve also enrolled in a one day passive solar home basics course in Halifax that takes place two weeks before I leave. I’m planning to leave for Ireland with as much knowledge as possible. I freely admit that in North America we focus on active solutions and rely almost too heavily on technology to get the job done. My previous school project work proposed many active solutions so I am entering a new domain of green design.

We have recently found out we will be staying at the Riverbank Apartments while we are in Carlow. We will also be making a trip to Dublin at the end of our project for St. Paddy’s Day. I hope to experience as much Irish culture as possible on my trip, and I can’t wait to experience the food!

Riverbank Apartments

I.T. Carlow

My Top 5 Strengths

I recently attended a leadership conference for members of the Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) Student Association. Part of preparing for the conference required taking the Gallup StrengthsFinder survey (http://strengths.gallup.com/default.aspx). StrengthsFinder tells you what your top five strengths are, based on a list of 34 themes.

It is important to know what your strengths are so that you can find work that suits them. Since your strengths are what you are good at it only makes sense for you to focus on them. It is a common misconception that we should focus on what we are not good at in order to improve it.

My five top strengths are:

  • Connectedness: Believe that things happen for a reason, and that we are all a part of something bigger like a spirit or life force.
  • Futuristic: Loves to peer over the horizon to help predict what will happen next.
  • Ideation: Fascinated by ideas and likes to look at situations from different angles.
  • Empathy: Sensitive to the emotions of others and able to see the world through their eyes.
  • Strategic: Can instinctively find the way through the clutter to the best path to take. Able to see around corners.

I feel that these strengths are ideal for the type of work that I am going in to and for where I want to be later in life. Sustainability for me is something that is a necessity, not an industry. I do it because I believe that it is right, and for the greater good. This is because of the connectedness I have with the planet and other living things.

The green building industry that I want to work in has come a long way in recent years but it still has a long way to go. This is especially the case as we prepare to make the leap from green buildings to eco-districts and green cities. The futuristic ability to see over the horizon will help me make innovative contributions and stay competitive.

Ideation will couple well with that skill. My ability to look at things from different angles will allow me to come up with new ideas for things that have been done the same way for a long time. I’m entering an industry where old outdated practices reign. This skill will be essential to my success.

My empathy is related to ideation in a way, because it lets me look at things from the same angle as others. I have always gotten along well with others, and I’m sure its because I understand them. This skill will help me immensely when I interact with co-workers and it will help keep the peace if things get stressful in the workplace.

Strategic is the skill that will guide my decision making. I know where I want to be, and what my vision for the industry is. I’ll use this destination as the basis for my path to get there. Strategic is a skill that can’t be learned and I’m thankful that I have it.

The leadership conference was great because it taught me what my strengths were, and how important it is to focus on them. By understanding them and how they can apply to my career I will be able to make the best contribution possible to my field.

Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment Final Project

Our energy efficiency reports were passed in yesterday and today were the presentations. The presentations were attended by lots of students, faculty, and community members. Some students from Holland College in PEI made the trip to Halifax to watch as well.

All groups did an excellent job of their projects and presentations. Because of the different nationalities and fields of study among the participants the strategies were quite different. Each group had at least one Irish student, one Dutch student, and one Canadian. I really enjoyed experiencing the different perspectives on things.

Our group did an energy model of a large (3000 square foot) house that was built in 2005. The home was R2000 and had an Energuide rating of 83. In order to develop our report we took the following steps:

  • We collected utility data and normalized it using heating degree days. Linear regression and cumulative sum analysis was used to look for irregularities
  • We developed an energy model of the house using HOT2000. This is free software from Natural Resources Canada that allows you to simulate the energy use in a house and find out where the areas for improvement are.
  • A 3D model was built. The house drawings were supplied in AutoCAD and these were used to create a Google Sketchup model as well as a 3D rendering.
  • An on-site audit was conducted and we collected data about various systems in the house and took inventory of items we felt were inefficient. We also used thermal imaging, sound meters, air quality sensors, and a blower door. We interviewed the home owner at this time to help us understand occupant behaviour.

We were able to come up with several opportunities for energy and efficiency. These were:

  • Install energy efficient light bulbs in all fixtures.
  • Retire the second refrigerator.
  • Install a hot water tank insulating blanket.
  • Use the programmable thermostat to set back heating at night.
  • Install a real time energy monitoring system.
  • Install a solar hot water heating system.
  • Install a drain water heat recovery unit.
We also recommended the homeowner get a rain barrel to harvest rainwater for landscaping and to use mulch to increase water retention in the soil for his garden beds. All of our recommendations for the home would cut the energy consumption down by 42%. This would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 8.18 tons, which is the same as planting 190 trees or taking 1.5 cars off the road. Being a part of this project was an amazing experience for me.
The international perspective was great and project based learning is a great way to learn. My field of study is quite new and I can expect to be working with people from other disciplines mostly, so the experience was priceless.
You can download a copy of our final report with recommendations here.

20111112-161054.jpg

Sustainable Purchasing Policy

I drafted a Sustainable Purchasing Policy for my Campus’ Student Association and it was successfully approved by council this week. The policy sets guidelines that can be followed to ensure that items purchased have as little effect on the environment as possible. The goal is to reduce the waste we generate, support manufacturers who use recycled content, and support local businesses.

The policy clearly states that it is a guideline and that it does not need to be followed. This is to ensure that the Student’s Association is able to function in its role. The policy is in place to get people thinking about how the purchasing choices  they make can effect the environment. In my role as the VP of Finance I track and report all purchases, and with this new policy in place I will also be tracking which purchases meet the criteria set forth. We will measure our performance based on the percentage of purchases that are sustainable. There is currently no minimum threshold that we need to achieve, but over time we may adopt an acceptable standard.

The purchasing policy was drafted using the LEED Operations and Maintenance guide as a template and it meets the requirements of Materials and Resources Prerequisite #1. Under LEED O&M a sustainable purchasing policy is mandatory, and you get extra points if you follow it. I feel that just by having one in place people are likely to follow it, and by not making in mandatory you are far more likely to have it adopted by building managers.

I have uploaded a copy of the purchasing policy here.

EEBE Walkthrough Audit

Today our groups performed our walkthrough audits for the Energy Efficiency and the Built Environment project. Our house that we audited was only a couple years old and was quite energy efficient already. We were armed with some pretty sophisticated tools and a great set of checklists that we prepared.

Dan Boyd from the Nova Scotia Homebuilders Association was on hand to perform the blower door test for us. The home we audited previously tested at 1.4 air changes per hour (ACH) but we won’t know how it faired out today until we get the data entered into HOT2000.

We tested the envelope of the building with the thermal imaging gun to look for thermal bridges. We found lots at the studs in the walls and the ceiling, as well as all along the headers and rim joists. Thermal bridges are pathways where heat escapes and are common in standard construction. Modern construction methods are working to eliminate them all together but not all builders are using them right now. We didn’t find any missing insulation or sagging around the windows.

We used an air quality meter to measure temperature, humidity, and CO2 levels on each floor. This will help us determine how effective the ventilation system is. The home has a heat recovery ventilator to reclaim the heat during the ventilation process.

The lighting was quite different throughout the house. We found compact fluorescent (CFL), halogen, as well as incandescent bulbs depending on what fixture we were looking at. We will recommend that the incandescent bulbs be replaced with CFLs.

South is located to the rear of the home and there is an excellent solar resource there. We will be creating a model for a solar system to determine the payback before we make that recommendation. I expect it will be feasible because of the location and the number of occupants (the more people the more hot water used). We will also look into using a drain water heat recovery system to reclaim heat from the drain water.

Water efficiency on the inside of the house was given attention when the home was designed, but the exterior could have some improvements. There are a lot of plants outside so a rain barrel to capture rainwater for watering would reduce potable water usage. Mulch should also be added around the shrubs to reduce evaporation from the soil and hopefully reduce the need for additional watering.

The heating system is about as good as it can get. The owner has an air source heat pump with an electric furnace for a backup. Since the subdivision was blasted out of the side of a rock mountain a ground source heat pump would be too much of an expense to be worth it.

Tomorrow we will start to sift through all the data we collected and come up with some more ideas for low cost or no cost recommendations for the home owner.

Sustainable Transportation at my Campus

This week at my campus is Sustainable Transportation Awareness Week. I am on the executive of the student association and I am organizing this event. This week we are giving out prizes to encourage people to use sustainable transportation. I am also using the event as a learning exercise for LEED for Existing Buildings. The event kicked off on Friday with a transportation survey. The survey meets the requirements of LEED EB:O&M Sustainable Sites Credit #4. Normally there would be a mandatory minimum number of responses to the survey but we don’t have the authority to make it mandatory. We are also only sending it out on one day, instead of for an entire week like LEED requires. The survey should give us an idea of the times of commutes that students and staff take. We will be giving out a cash prize to one randomly selected person who responds to the survey.

Every day this week you can be entered into a second draw if you use sustainable transportation to get to school. We will accept walking, cycling, or any other non-motorized transportation. Also accepted are hybrid or alternative fuel vehicles, and carpools of 3 or more people in a traditional vehicle.

On Friday of next week we will be doing “Crazy but Safe Sustainable Transportation Day.” We will be giving a prize out to one random person who uses an unconventional method of transportation to get to school. Some examples might be roller skates, skip-it, or stilts. This day is designed to bring awareness to the need for sustainable transportation, and to be fun.

The student association executive at our campus this year is made up entirely of students in the Energy Sustainability Engineering Technology program. I expect that we will have several new green events over the course of the year.

The results of our transportation survey.

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