My Clean Break column this week looks at a small company in Toronto called TowerLabs that helps get green building technologies tested and ultimately embraced by major condo and tower developers, a notoriously conservative bunch at the best of times. The company is a spinoff of condo developer Tridel, and so far its efforts at matching up tower builders with new cleantech startups is showing strong results.
Technologies abound, many of them developed in Ontario, with promise to reduce the amount of energy consumption in buildings, particularly the big energy-hogging towers that dot our urban and increasingly suburban landscapes.
But the companies that construct these giant towers are notoriously conservative, as are the banks that fund them, so cracking into this massive market hasn’t been easy for newcomers.
Jamie James is trying to break down some walls. As a sustainability adviser to Canadian condo builder Tridel for nearly 10 years, James helped build an internal R&D program that tested out the performance of new energy-efficiency technologies for buildings.
In 2010, with Tridel’s blessing and support, he decided to “externalize” the program and expand it to other tower builders, with the goal of speeding up the time it takes to get new green building technologies to the larger marketplace.
Along this path, James found a partner in MaRS Discovery District, which donated office space. The non-profit social venture TowerLabs was born.
“I go to cleantech innovators who are targeting the real estate sector with the proposition that I can get you into the buildings and working with potential customers,” James explains.
TowerLabs acts as relationship maker and project manager, helping to get the technology installed and its performance measured in both real-world and test scenarios. “To go into a building and have real-live demos can go a long way toward showing that something is viable,” he says.
The approach is already paying off for Vancouver-based dPoint Technologies, which has developed a new type of air ventilation system that dramatically reduces the need to heat or cool fresh intake air, depending on the season.
Some rooftop ventilation systems found on condo buildings will take fresh air from the outside, heat it (if in the winter), and blow it through the inside of the building via a network of ducts. The air flows into the hallway of each floor and, moving through the gap at the bottom of doors, enters each condo suite.
Stale warm air, meanwhile, is expelled through the bathroom fans of individual suites. When that warm air is ejected, so is the energy within it.
The dPoint system, or Energy Recovery Ventilator, takes a very different approach. Rather than have fresh air come from a central ventilation system on a rooftop, each condo unit has its own individual air intake and exhaust box.
As warm, stale inside air is exhausted the dPoint system instantly recovers and transfers the heat to the incoming flow of fresh air. It does this using a special polymer membrane that also filters out impurities and transfers humidity between the two air flows as they move in opposite directions.
“This is really a dramatic shift in the way a building breathes,” says James, adding that the dPoint technology passed the “sniff test” and is gaining traction after a few initial tests with Tridel.
With TowerLabs’ help, about 740 dPoint systems are now being installed in two Tridel condo towers in Scarborough.
“If all goes well, dPoint go from being a near total unknown in the market less than 18 months ago to being a specification for the largest condo builder in Toronto,” James says. “So that’s kind of proving out the approach we’re taking.”
Tridel continues to play a key role, but TowerLabs is hoping to bring on other builders. It also plans to test out technologies at the tower being built as part of the expansion at MaRS.
Another technology being put to the test is a new type of variable speed motor used in heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems from Toronto-based start-up InMotive.
To push warm and cool air around requires fans, and the motors that power those fans often only operate in two modes: completely on, and completely off. One way of saving energy is to swap out those motors with variable speed versions that can slow down or speed up based on air flow demands.
What InMotive has designed it was it calls a mechatronic variable speed drive that is more efficient and requires less maintenance than conventional variable-speed motor designs. TowerLabs helped the company get its first prototype tested in a high-rise building.
“The goal was to prove that the concept worked, and they achieved that,” says James, adding that more tests are planned as the product evolves.
TowerLabs also has Tridel testing out a solar co-generation system, which supplies electricity through photovoltaic panels and harvests solar heat at the same time.
“Once you get the innovation in there you can really change its fate overnight,” he says.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.