Five minutes with Dennis Lee

30 Sep 2020

Until recently, Dennis Lee was the Early Access Program Advisor with GBCA. During his time here Dennis worked across internal and external teams to finesse the credits in our new Green Star Buildings rating tool. This month Dennis explains how this feedback shaped the tool and gives an insight into some of the groundbreaking work that has emerged from these projects.

Dennis, can you tell us about your role at GBCA and how you contributed to the new tool?  

I was the Early Access Program Advisor, working closely with ten pilot sites to road test the new credit concepts and provide feedback from these real live projects to the Market Transformation team. My contribution to the new rating was communicating what the new credits were intending to achieve,  how they would achieve them, understanding how they applied to the individual projects and the implications of it, and then distilling the project feedback  to the Market Transformation team in a way they could action change in the credits. In essence, I was conduit of information that understood both perspectives and provided meaningful feedback for the credits in a way that it could be actioned.

How did the information from by the early access projects feed into the final tool?  

I was really happy to see that the feedback that was provided by the project teams was seriously considered by the Market Transformation team. The team did a great job of amending the credits when the bar was set a little too high, while maintaining the integrity of the credit to ensure they were still challenging to achieve so  there would be real and beneficial outcomes. I found it really refreshing how all the feedback was genuinely considered and how much that feedback influenced the design of the credits and the rating.

The best example I can think of was working with the project teams on the proposed minimum expectations. The early set of minimum expectations was quite a stringent set of credits where projects would really have to reach to achieve, and some were originally set as 'stretch targets' to get feedback from the projects as a test of how realistic they would be to implement. Great feedback was received from all the early access projects,  who were able to demonstrate the material impacts of these credits. Quite a few of the early proposed minimum expectations fell away based on that feedback, and others were amended. What we were left with was a strong set of expectations that will lead to good outcomes and   push projects wanting a Green Star rating. This maintains the reputation of  Green Star Buildings being awesome buildings, that are also achievable across sectors and climate zones.

You would have seen some ground-breaking initiatives during your time on this project. Can you share some of your highlights?  

All the projects were doing great things, and some were doing some absolutely amazing things. One of the highlights was working with the participants who pivoted mid-design (some were very advanced in design and had broken ground) to remove fossil fuels from their buildings to become net zero. That pivot, so far into the design phase, was inspiring. It showed that the individuals driving the change were committed to a great outcome and could see the real long-term benefits. One project is developing an aquatic centre, which conventionally uses gas fired infrastructure for pool heating, and they are going down the path of designing an all-electric solution powered by renewables. Working with these individuals was the highlight, and the key takeaway for me is that nothing is impossible so long as there is the will to get it done.

The other highlight was seeing really innovative designs and solutions to issues that are unconventional, but lead to great outcomes, both in terms of form and performance. I don't want to go into too much detail as this could quickly become an essay, but seeing old challenges being overcome in innovative ways reminds us that there are limitless possibilities and that we can keep doing better.

I do want to go on a tangent here and put a shout out to each of the projects and the individuals I was particularly working with on each and every early access project. It was definitely a highlight that I had the privilege to work with incredible, intelligent and passionate individuals who genuinely wanted to see an amazing environmental outcome. You know who you are, and you're awesome!

What challenges did the projects face to deliver net zero buildings?  

The biggest challenge in delivering a net zero building is the removal of gas for heating and replacing it with electric heating. The aquatic centre for example, has an absolutely massive heating load for the scale of water that needs to be heated for the pools, and there were many conversations about managing risk because you don't run heat pumps the same way you do gas boilers.

Within the office buildings, the switch to electric created an issue with the increase in total electricity demand that could have exceeded the allowance for the substations set aside for the development. This could be partially offset by taking a risk approach  in that the building shouldn't be running all the electric equipment fully loaded at the same time would be a very inefficient building indeed if it was fully utilising the heating and cooling capacity simultaneously, and the remainder was looking at how  further energy efficiency gains could be made in the design. The thinking was that capital invested to further improve energy efficiency has some return with reduced energy costs but buying greater substation capacity will just keep costing more in energy. It is this long term, whole of life thinking that I think is the key to making or breaking a net zero building.

How do you hope to see the tool evolve further? 

I hope to see the rating continue to evolve, to keep pushing industry along to create not only better buildings, but better places and more responsible sourcing of materials (both in terms of social and environmental outcomes). I would love to see similar thinking applied to the carbon positive roadmap for water use and circular economy (I don't ask for much, do I!), and to see that evolve into the rating in the same way it has for net zero carbon buildings. This will be a huge challenge to take forward as a definition of net zero water is yet to be established, let alone how to get there, and circular economy is so incredibly complex and relies on cooperation throughout the whole supply chain. Or I guess supply loop, rather than chain, if we're talking circular.

Want to learn more about the Green Star Buildings Early Access Projects? We’re releasing a series of case studies when we launch the new tool on 29 October. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter Green Building Voice, or follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.