Fin MacDonald

Information on me and my current projects

Canada’s Newest LEED AP

Today marks a big achievement for me. I passed my LEED Accredited Professional exam with the Existing Building Operations and Maintenance (O+M) specialty. I have been studying for this exam off and on for almost a year now. My college exams and the European exchange trip I was on caused some major delays in writing. I put a big push on in the last couple of weeks to be able to write this before my summer vacation starts next week.

This is what the Green Building Certification Institute who manages the certification has to say about it:

“The LEED AP Building Operations + Maintenance credential demonstrates the exceptional expertise of green building professionals implementing sustainable practices, improving performance, heightening efficiency and reducing environmental impact in existing buildings through enhanced operations and maintenance. Those who hold the LEED AP O+M credential are vanguards in their industry, transforming the built environment and possessing thorough knowledge of the LEED rating systems and their implementation.”

The exam was very challenging and required memorization and application of a wide range of information. The reference guide for LEED O+M is over 700 pages long and the pass mark on the exam is 85%.

There are a huge amount of buildings that have been constructed over recent years to the LEED standard, but this deals with construction only. How these buildings are operated is exclusive of that. Buildings that were constructed to LEED standards are eligible for LEED O+M, but so are buildings that were not built to LEED standards. Raising the bar on our existing building stock is a big step towards a greener built environment.

I’m looking forward to applying my new credentials in the work place. I believe the next wave of LEED work will be for existing buildings. I am particularly interested in the greening of existing schools because of the impacts of green buildings on learning. I plan to seek out opportunities to improve the learning environment for students.

Fin MacDonald, LEED AP O+M

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.

Sustainable Transportation: Bus vs Car

Since I arrived in Ottawa I have been thinking of ways to make my day-to-day life more sustainable. An obvious choice was to use transit year round. It also makes financial sense because the wear and tear on my car driving around the city in addition to the gas I burn would be far more expensive than a bus pass (OC Transpo sells an adult pass for $94 per month). I was interested in finding out what the difference in the carbon footprint was.

I own a 2003 Hyundai Elantra and it certainly doesn’t get the fuel efficiency that it did when it rolled out of the factory. I’ve done some searching online and I’m satisfied that I can do my calculations using a fuel efficiency of 9.4 Liters per 100 km (25 miles per gallon or 0.09 kilometers per liter). My commute would be 6 km, the traffic moves steadily with very little idling.

Calculating the fuel efficiency of the bus is where things become a little more complex. I ride the bus during rush hour. The bus has anywhere from 25-30 people on it, and my ride takes about 30 minutes. It takes a less direct route to my office, which is 7.1 km. The problem is that outside of rush hour the OCTranspo buses drive around with very few people on them, and also need to drive to and from the start of their routes at shift change with nobody but the driver on board. For this reason I am going to calculate the energy footprint of two bus scenarios. Scenario 1 will only consider the bus ride I take to and from work and ignore everything else. Scenario 2 will consider the total fuel OCTranspo burns in a year, and how many total passenger kilometers it delivers to customers. According to the most recent OCTranspo Facts and Figures report, they provided 973 million passenger kilometers and burned 41.8 million liters of diesel fuel.

Carbon Footprint Calculations – For each one way trip

The end result is that no matter how you measure it, the bus has less of an impact than my car. Interestingly enough though if I were to carpool I could reduce my impact into the same range as the bus, but have a much more convenient trip. The problem with carpooling is that it is hard to organize and not always an option.

Its transit for me!

USGBC Center For Green Schools – Spotlight on 2011 Greenbuild Scholars

I was recently featured on the United States Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools website. Read my blog entry.

Moving and Sustainability

There is not much sustainable about moving half way across the country, and this is something that has plagued me over the last few weeks as we prepared for our move. I’ve been trying to come up with ways to reduce the environmental footprint of our move, and to give some consideration to the social impact as well. The triple bottom line involving environmental, social, and economic impacts is something I place a lot of value in.

The first thing that we have done is to purge as much of our stuff as possible to cut down on the weight we will be moving. Fundamental thermodynamics says that the force required to move something is equal to the mass times the acceleration. Since we can’t control the acceleration the movers use, we have to adjust the mass to reduce the energy required. We also chose to hire movers so that our belongings are moved in a large truck with many other peoples belongings. This means it will be much more efficient than moving it in a half empty U-Haul by ourselves.

Other problems presents themselves because we will need to replace the things we purge when we get there, and producing new products requires energy too. We also need to divert what we purge from the landfill. The embodied energy associated with what we are throwing out and what we are replacing is difficult to calculate. The solution we have come up with for this is to leave everything we no longer want on the sidewalk for people in our neighbourhood to take. The vast majority of what we placed outside has found new homes, and the less fortunate and student populations in our neighbourhood benefited from this. Some people even stopped us on the street to thank us for putting so much stuff outside to give away. Reusing is the second of the 3 Rs for a reason, and the best way to divert things from a landfill. The remainder of the things will be recycled if possible and we will send to the landfill only what we cannot divert. Once we arrive in Ottawa we will try to stock our apartment with items from yard sales. This will allow us to reuse other peoples items they no longer want, and reduce the embodied energy. It will also help us financially as we try to establish ourselves in a new city.

The last step involves getting ourselves there. I have been pretty hard on my car and was planning to sell it before we made the move. We have decided to keep it and sell it in Ottawa, and drive instead of fly. Driving is more fuel efficient than flying. We will also fill by car with light boxes to use all the space, and free up space in the movers truck. We’ve got CAA roadside assistance in case we don’t make it, but our fingers are crossed!

While its near impossible to do a zero carbon move (I like to think that nothing is impossible), it is still important to consider the environmental and social impacts of your decisions. Often people are only concerned with the financial impacts. In our move we made decisions that both reduced the carbon impact and helped out the less fortunate in our neighbourhood. We are far from a zero-impact move but every little bit helps.

Our move from Halifax to Ottawa will be roughly 1,434 km

City of Halifax

City of Ottawa

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 Greenbuild Presentation

Today I did a presentation to my classmates on Greenbuild and some of the key topics that were presented there. Since I attended Greenbuild as a scholarship winner it is my duty to share what I learned with my classmates and chapter. My presentation is a summary of several other presentations, and took about 40 minutes to cover all the material.

I video taped the presentation so I could share it with people who were not able to attend.

This was the first time I’ve ever recorded myself presenting. By watching myself present I was able to get a better understanding of my presentation style. I’ve noticed some bad habits I would like to eliminate and I will work on improving them.

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