Fin MacDonald

Information on me and my current projects

Category Archives: Sustainability

Robinson Place wins 2016 Canadian Consulting Engineering Award

Robinson Place in Peterborough Ontario became the first government building in Canada to earn the prestigious LEED Platinum certification in August of 2014.  The building was awarded certification using the LEED for Existing Building: Operations and Maintenance (EBOM) rating system.  Morrison Hershfield were the consulting engineers responsible for sustainability, retro-commissioning, and mechanical/electrical design.  My role on this project was to develop and implement a strategy to achieve LEED Platinum certification.  The building had a number of impressive features including:

  • Green roof
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Storm water retention cistern and pond
  • Energy star score of 89
  • Community garden
  • Recreated natural habitat

The building was awarded a Canadian Consulting Engineering Award on October 25, 2016.  This was not the first award Robinson Place has won either.  The list of awards includes:

  • 2016 Canadian Consulting Engineering Award of Excellence
  • 2016 Consulting Engineers Ontario Award of Excellence
  • 2015 CaGBC Greater Toronto Chapter Existing Building Innovation Award

More information on Robinson Place is available here.


Robinson Place Project Team


Robinson Place


Protecting Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) in the Nursury

Having just moved into a new house, and with a baby on the way, its time to set up the nursery.  While many people base their decisions on appearance and utility, I think the health aspect could use more attention.  I wanted to create this blog entry to share some of the decisions we made, and why we made them.

Low Emission Furniture

When buying food people pay close attention to the ingredients, however this is seldom true for furniture.  In many cases the furniture we place inside our homes contain toxic ingredients.  This is especially true of composite wood products and mattresses.  The glues and resins in these products often contain formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  Formaldehyde has a boiling point of -19 degrees Celsius which means it vaporizes at room temperature and enters the air.  We know for certain formaldehyde causes cancer, so you don’t want baby breathing that in.

The California Air Resources Board (CARB) has created standard 93120 that place limits on the amount of airborne toxins including formaldehyde emissions allowed for different types of composite wood (man made wood products like particleboard, plywood, veneers etc).  If your crib, dresser, or change table is CARB phase 1 or CARB phase 2 compliant then you know it is under the safe emission level.  If not then there is no limit to the amount of formaldehyde that might be present.  Our crib had a solid wood core and featured veneers of a different type of wood.  These veneers were glued on, so we made sure that the crib met the CARB requirements.  The is no legal requirement for manufacturers in Canada to meet CARB.

One step up from CARB would be GREENGUARD Gold certification (formerly known as GREENGUARD Children & Schools).  The emission limits for products certified to either of these standards is even lower.  This is especially important for items a baby will have direct contact with, such as a crib mattress.  We found a GREENGUARD Gold mattress and purchased it.

No-VOC Paint

Paint is another item that has a big impact on the indoor air quality.  Similar to formaldehyde, other VOCs also have a very low boiling point which allow them to vaporize at room temperature.  Paint that is manufactured without VOCs won’t cause any fumes or other IAQ pollution.  This means that you could literally paint with the windows closed and not get a headache because there are no dangerous fumes from the paint.   If you don’t want to go for no-VOC paint, you can look for low-VOC paint.  We chose to use Olympic Icon paint which is not just no-VOC but also Ecologo certified.

Mercury Free Lighting

We installed L.E.D. bulbs in the nursery lighting.  When buying bulbs you typically have two choices when it comes to energy efficiency.  L.E.D. or Compact Fluorescent (CFL).  What many people don’t know is that CFL bulbs contain mercury, and the amount of mercury is not regulated.  When these bulbs are burnt out they need to be taken to a toxic waste disposal site.  This isn’t something you want in your nursery (or your house at all).  If one of these bulbs were to break indoors the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends you open a window, shut off your forced air heating or air conditioning system, and leave the room for 5-10 minutes before attempting to clean (more info).


Finally, once the room is finished you can flush out any toxins that may have snuck into the room.  You do this by airing out the room for long periods of time.  Any toxins that may enter the room’s air can leave throught the window.  Its important to assemble any furniture well in advance of the baby’s arrival to allow for any toxins to off-gas and be flushed out.  We assembled our furniture two months before the baby arrived and aired the room out for a few hours once a week.



Our Household Carbon Footprint: 2014

After working in the Carbon industry for a couple of years I felt it was time to prepare our household’s carbon footprint, and set a few goals for the future.  If the few years I spend working in the accounting industry have taught me anything, its that what gets measured gets managed.  This carbon footprint will serve as a baseline for future years as I try to reduce our impact on the environment.  I also wanted to try to go beyond just global warming though.  For that reason I have also included a metric on nuclear waste.  The Greenhouse Gas Protocol Corporate Standard was used to calculate emissions.  The values calculated do not include upstream emissions or embodied energy.

Our current apartment is located at 1833 Riverside Drive.  We have a one bedroom apartment which is roughly 637 square feet (60 square meters).  Our building heats the units with a natural gas boiler.  We cool the unit using two electric air conditioning units.  We also have electric lighting and various plug loads.  The apartment houses myself, my wife, and a cat.

Our transportation consists of a family car.  We own a 2003 Hyundai Elantra.  Green & rust coloured.  I use this car for work, and our family uses it for errands and weekend or vacation getaways.  In the past year we have driven from Ottawa to Nova Scotia once.  My wife works on a major bus route downtown and uses transit to get to work.  We did not travel by airplane at at all during 2014.  We took two long trips by train to Niagara Falls and Nova Scotia.  Our emissions are as follows:

Scope 1 (Owned Automobiles): 3,451 kg CO2e

Scope 2 (Purchased Electricity and Imported Heating): 1,780 kg CO2e

Scope 3 (Train and Bus Transportation): 601 kg CO2e

Total Emissions: 5,832 kg CO2e

Footprint Breakdown

Breakdown of GHG Emissions by Source

Our carbon footprint shows that driving a car is really impacting our emissions in a bad way.  Taking the bus on the other hand is a great way to travel and reduce emissions.  Our heat related natural gas emissions are high, but that is to be expected.  In Ottawa’s climate we need lots of heat in the winter.  Our electricity emissions are quite low.  This is due to the great work Ontario’s electricity grid has done to remove coal and reduce other high carbon sources of electricity.  Ontario generates a lot of electricity with nuclear plants though, and as a result we created 40.64 kg of uranium waste.

In April we are moving into a townhouse.  We chose a location that was on a major bus route for both of us.  It is also walking distance for me to get to work when the weather is agreeable.  We will also be welcoming a baby into the world in August, which means our house population will be increasing.  With this move in mind, I have set the following goals for the next year:

  1. Cut automobile transportation emissions in half by driving considerably less.
  2. Keep electricity emissions from increasing by carefully managing plug loads and phantom power.
  3. Evaluate and consider responsible options for local natural gas offsets using landfill gas.
  4. Quantify any airplane emissions which are planned for 2015.

Gearing up for an Eco-Friendly(ish) vacation

Planning a honeymoon to the Caribbean is becoming a fairly standard practice for most newly weds.  The tourism industry is well equipped to help you book a standard vacation, but what happens when you want something eco-friendly?  You will find that this isn’t a common request that travel agents get and they aren’t prepared to answer it.  This is because flying south isn’t typically viewed as as something that can be done in an eco-friendly way.  Times are changing and now you have options.  There are choices you can make from the resort, to the airline, to the food, and the products you use.  Here is the process we followed:

1) Choose an eco-friendly resort.  This doesn’t mean you have to stay in a grass hut without air conditioning but you should seek out a resort that puts a focus on sustainability.  Market demand for eco-friendly hotels is a great thing, and will encourage more hotels to follow suit.  After a lot of research we settled on the El Dorado Royale in the Riveria Maya, Mexico.  This resort was recommended by friends for its food and amenities, but when we did more digging we found out it took sustainability serious as well.  The eco friendly features include:

  • Solar panels to heat 100% of the water for the pools.
  • A greenhouse that grows fresh organic vegetables and herbs for use in the restaurants.
  • Laundry at the resort is cleaned without chemicals, and 92% of the water is reclaimed and filtered/cleaned for other uses.  Heat recovery recovers 98% of the heat used for drying to heat hot water for washing.
  • Energy efficient air conditioners eliminate on/off cycling and reduce energy consumption by 50% over standard models.
  • The resort is Green Globe certified (3rd party verified green rating system similar to LEED).

2) Mitigate the effects of travel.  Travel is the part that is difficult when you head south.  Nobody wants to spend their entire vacation in a car or train.  Its pretty much airplane or nothing.  When faced with no options for eco-friendly travel you need to take steps to mitigate the effects of your travel.  Air Canada offers a great carbon offsetting program in cooperation with a firm called Zerofootprint.  Not only can you offset your flights emissions, but you get to choose how they are offset.  We chose to offset our emissions using a combination of planting trees and recycling tires. Planting trees removed carbon from the atmosphere and recycling tires cuts down on carbon as well as hazardous gases associated with burning tires (which is standard practice for tires not recycled).

3) Choose Eco-friendy sunscreen.  Many of the chemicals found in sunscreen are toxic and their effects on marine life are especially harmful.  If you plan on swimming in the ocean in and around the coral reefs you should do your part to reduce serious damage to the local eco-system.  Eco-friendly suncreen does not include any of the following chemicals:

  • Benzophenone
  • Ethylhexyl
  • Homosalate
  • Octyl metoxycinnamate
  • Octyl salicylate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinxate
  • Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane

Terra20 in Ottawa sells sunscreen that is free of these chemicals.

These are the eco-friendly decisions we made when planning our honeymoon.  Our trip is scheduled for the end of October and I will try to grab some good photos of the eco friendly features at the resort while I am there.


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!

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

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.

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.