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Lead Architect talks about paving the way with Passive House with WalterFedy

Benjamin Gregory shares his story of his journey to Passive House, from his humble beginnings to present day with sustainably progressive and Waterloo's top employer, WalterFedy

By:
Kelly Fisher
Andrew Peel

Kelly: Thanks everybody for joining us. Today we have Andrew Peel, myself Kelly Fisher, and our guest Benjamin Gregory. Ben is the Team Lead Architect and Senior Associate at WalterFedy, who we have supported with Passive House training. Today we're going to be learning more about who WalterFedy are and their journey to Passive House.

So welcome Ben, and thanks for joining us.

Ben: Thanks for having me.

Kelly: We're going to start with some just light questions. Some icebreakers to get everybody warmed up. What is your favourite Flintstone vitamin?

Ben: I'd have to say purple.

Kelly: Can tell us a bit about what you do at WalterFedy?

Ben: Sure. I'm what's called a Project Architect. That typically means I'm working directly with the owner as the prime consultant. Depending on the project, it involves coordinating the work of other consultants to deliver the project. I’m typically responsible for overseeing all aspects of the project from design, through approvals into construction.

Specifically, at WalterFedy, I'm in the ICR sector. Our company's broken up into various sectors: we've got a healthcare team, we have an industrial team, an education team, and ICR is a catchall. It stands for Institutional Commercial and Residential. It just means we take all the leftovers. Residential and mixed-use is a big part of our business, so that's typically what I'm involved in.

Kelly: That sounds exciting. Very wide department though, institutional commercial, residential. That's all-encompassing.

Ben: That's right.

Kelly: When you say you're a Project Architect, where has your passion for architecture come from?

Ben: I think architecture is really a calling. It's a mixture of art, and science business.

Growing up, I always loved the arts. I loved history and math. Architecture just fell in my lap. My mom would probably tell you my architectural career started when I was about five years old. I drew a beautiful portrait of a house and whole scenery on the wall in crayons. She was super happy about that.

Kelly: I bet.

Ben: It is really something that's developed over time. I had a lot of related classes in high school and I went into university and never looked back. I fell in love with it. The more and more I learned about architecture the more and more I love. We spend so much time of our lives inside of buildings.

We celebrate some of our greatest life moments inside of buildings. We eat, sleep, and breathe inside of buildings for the most part. I've always been passionate about how we can improve the indoor quality of spaces and how we can improve our interaction with buildings.

Kelly: That's a lot of passion. It's great to hear. The indoor space is something that is a really good, keen focus. We do spend an alarming amount of time inside. More than you realize.

Ben: Yes, and the other side of it too, is that I've always been fascinated—and you learn in architectural school a lot—about what's typically referred to as period architecture. That's architecture over the course of human history at different time phases.

In those different period pieces, you have buildings being limited by the labour force and access to building materials at the time and place. I think what we're seeing right now and what gives me a lot of passion is that we're not restricted by that anymore. In our modern construction environment, we've got so much accessibility with technology.

We're now digital, we're 3d modelling, everything's computed. The possibilities are endless, and we can really push the level of design in a different type of building we can deliver.

Kelly: That's really awesome. Thanks for sharing that.

Everybody has a hero's journey or a story that really helps define who they are as a person or their characteristics or what really drives them and gives some passion to their work.

Would you be able to share some of your biggest challenges that you would've had to overcome to get to the position you are today?

Ben: I think if you ask any architect, they'll probably have a similar answer. I think the journey itself is definitely challenging to get to the point where you are a licensed architect.

I don’t know if you want me to get into the whole spiel of how long it takes to get a license, but I'm happy to go through that.

Kelly: Sure.

Ben: It's a lot of schooling—you have to apply and be accepted to an undergraduate program. It's typically about a four-year program.

Some undergrad programs have a co-op part of the education where you actually go and work for a firm as well. Once you finish your undergrad, you're right into graduate school, unless your undergrad is a certified program. And then once your education's all finished, you're just starting your internship and that internship can last anywhere from three to seven years, depending on how fast you want to get through it.

There are architectural licensing exams. And then once you finish your internship hours and those exams, you can then apply for your license. It's definitely challenging. You have to really love it. But I think all of us that are in the industry really appreciate what that experience does for us.

It's gruelling, but necessary. Through that education process, it hardens your resolve. It makes you form opinions and stand behind them and develops some of your soft skills too, like communication presentation and all that good stuff.

Kelly: Yes, I've worked with a number of architects over the years and a lot of young ones that have just come out of their masters, and you just witness their process and how many hours they have to collect and all the different aspects of the business.

It's a good thing, really, because you wouldn't want somebody without that experience designing a large building, it is a gruelling journey and you do have to be dedicated to it.

Ben: It's a necessary evil. I think for me personally, like some of the challenges too.

I was born and raised in the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario area but I went to school in Michigan as a dual citizen. My intention was to keep working down in the U.S. when I graduated. Unfortunately, I graduated from my undergrad program in 2007 and the economy was just falling off the ledge at that point.

Kelly: Oh yeah.

Ben: I learned pretty fast how fragile our industry can be and how tied to the economy it can be. I ended up moving back to the Kitchener and Waterloo area and I never left.

Kelly: It's a nice spot. My youngest brother went to Waterloo for a few years. I enjoyed visiting him whenever he was there.

Ben: It has definitely grown up. People describe it as a small town that has big city amenities.

Kelly: That's very true.

Kelly: Can you share a little bit about WalterFedy and what WalterFedy does. There might be people who listen to this who may not know a bit of backstory on the firm and some of the more special or interesting projects that you would've worked on.

Ben: I think we've been around, don't quote me on the date, about 70 years. It's been here for a long time. It started off as mechanical/electrical and ended up merging with an architectural group back in the seventies, I believe. And it evolved over time into a fully integrated firm.

As WalterFedy, we offer architectural, structural, mechanical, electrical, civil, all the engineering disciplines. We also have an energy and carbon solutions group at facilities management group. And we have a sister company called AEC that does construction management. We're really positioning ourselves to be a one-stop shop for any kind of client to come here with. We have a wide range of different project types that we can deliver.

Kelly: That's awesome. I know in the project meetings, there's a few from your team that's in disciplines as well—we've got structural, interior design, civil, everybody on the call and they're all from WalterFedy.

It's great that there are so many disciplines under one roof. Would you say that would be what gives WalterFedy your distinct character compared to other firms? Or is there another kind of characteristic or component to that?

Ben: I think that, and we feel very strongly about our core values—and they are quality client focus, integrity, environmental sustainability, and community building.

I think we're pretty active on all those fronts, especially when it comes to sustainability. I think that's always been something that's important to us, I’d say more so in the last five years.

Kelly: Would any of those goals or statements or I mission statements would have been an influence in how WalterFedy has become a Waterloo Area's Top Employers recently? Or is there more to it than that? Is it a culture or could you expand on that?

Ben: Sure. I think we've been a Waterloo Area’s Top Employers for a couple of years now. I think what that group looks like are things that we offer in the eyes of the employee. Things like engagement, benefits, turnover rate, how active we are in the community, and sustainability. That's a big piece of it. I think it really aligns well with those core values I mentioned. We have a number of committees that keep some of our staff engaged in different aspects of the business as well.

Kelly: That's awesome.

Ben: I think the other cornerstone is training and continuous improvement. Training is a big part of what we offer employees. When we had the opportunity to learn more about Passive House, it was a no-brainer for us.

Kelly: That's a good transition. Because my next question for you is how did you come to cross paths with Passive House?

Ben: I took a Passive House course in undergrad, in the early 2000s when I was in school in Michigan. Our professor took us on a couple of tours of some Passive Houses that were literally houses. These were small buildings that were built off-grid. At that early stage of my education career, it was really impactful.

It made me rethink what a building could be and how it could be harmonious with the surroundings. Some of these houses had a solar chimney and had windows that were oriented in the right direction to take advantage of the solar cycle. For me, it was life-changing for how my thinking of buildings could be.

Kelly: How did your firm come to adopt Passive House? Was it just a requirement or a need from a project or was it more of a natural evolution spurring from your sustainability work and efforts?

Ben: I'm paraphrasing, but I think one of my colleagues in our energy and carbon solutions group reached out to Peel Passive House about five or six years ago to collaborate on a pursuit project.

He had nothing but good things to say. When one of our projects developed into being interested in Passive House, it was recommended we reached out to Peel, we did that and here we are today.

Kelly: That's awesome. What support or involvement have you gotten from your colleagues at WalterFedy when we're looking for training, etc.? Is there any one else with a similar kind of appetite or interest in the process or interest in the building standard?

Ben: Yes. When we're working on the project that we are developing with Peel Passive House currently, the decision was made early on to go with Passive House.

That really developed out of our relationship with Sustainable Waterloo. We worked with them pretty closely and they advised us to look into Passive House and its alignment with this client's pro forma. For us, when we discussed that as a project type, it was really a no-brainer.

Passive House was always something that we've been interested in as a firm, and for us to take advantage of an opportunity to work on a building like this and to incorporate training, it was really a no-brainer. We just wanted to get in there and learn. When we asked our project team who would be interested, all their hands went up.

There were many people in the training sessions that were not even attached to this project, they just wanted to learn more about it. We actually had to turn some people away. We had too many people that wanted to come, so there's no shortage of passion and interest in this type of sustainability.

Andrew: I like the tie-in with the Sustainable Waterloo—was that the organization’s name?

Ben: Sustainable Waterloo Region, yes.

Andrew: Sustainable Waterloo Region. I love how they're bringing it to the table and saying, "for a project team, have you considered it?" Coming from municipality or like an aligned organization, it speaks to the importance of advocacy. Some of us in the Passive House space have been advocating with such organizations early on for Passive House and you don't really see much happening immediately. But in the background, I think it starts to shape people's minds, and then it comes almost full circle to where they're talking about introducing it or looking at having teams/projects actually explore it.

Ben: Yes. WalterFedy is very connected with SWR. I think we have certain initiatives or targets, I should say, that we're trying to meet. We've done a five-year commitment to reducing our carbon footprint, so we work with them very regularly and test a lot of things in our current buildings just to conform to that. We know that organization very well, and we're a member organization. The person over there, Tova Davidson, knows one of our clients with who we're working with on this project and said, "Why are you guys not doing Passive House on this project?" That really started the whole conversation of going down this road. To us, it was really such a natural alignment with this type of work. The project is long-term affordable housing, and it really aligns well with that type of model where you spend some dollars at the initial outset of the project and it saves money over the course of the building's lifespan.

Kelly: What would be the most prominent achievement from WalterFedy in the sustainability space?

Ben: I think there's a lot here, we've been really pushing into sustainability. Fortunately, we've had some great opportunities to work with some excellent, forward-thinking clients.

We have five projects underway currently that are net zero. We have a net zero integrated team approach. We have five buildings that are geared towards net zero. We have four projects that are mass timber projects. We have just completed one in 2021. We're also doing another project that is considering going to Passive House as well.

We want be on the leading edge of what sustainability means to our community.

Kelly: That's great to hear. Usually, a lot of firms I find come to Passive House as a project requirement. But to have that wealth of experience and that kind of initiative behind Passive House in the net zero space is really keen as well.

How has your firm's experience in the sustainability building practice supported your delivery of a Passive House project? Has it created foundational awareness for building sustainability within the team?

Ben: Yes, we have a strong culture of sustainability, so is our desire to innovate and be on the leading edge of sustainability.

This opportunity to work with Passive House has really just begun. This is the first project for us in Passive House, the first project for me personally. We're really excited to see where this can go.

Kelly: Engaging with Peel Passive House for the Community Hub on Charles project, maybe you could shed some light on why you opted for private Passive House training.

Ben: Yes. For us, when we went down this path of Passive House, when the training was part of the conversation, like I mentioned before, it was a no-brainer. Our team was very passionate and wanted to learn more.

For us, it wouldn't make sense just to jump in and do one project and leave. Me personally, I want to be very involved in the process, learn about how Passive House is actually put together. How the modelling works, and how these buildings are assessed when they're constructed. I wanted to learn more about the entire process as a whole.

Training was a big part of that. I think there were eight of us in that training, and I think everyone indicated that they wanted to pursue certification likely later on this year. Hopefully, things get less crazy in the marketplace, but if we get some extra time, that's definitely something we want to pursue.

Kelly: What benefits would you have seen since you've completed the training? Has it prepared you for what you're seeing on the project that we're working on together? Has it created more of an awareness of what we need to accomplish realistically as a team?

Ben: The benefit we see is that it is a renewed awareness and appreciation for how buildings can be designed. Oftentimes in a market, we're working with clients who have a budget. They have to meet certain criteria for their buildings, whether they're an owner-operator or a developer trying to flip the building, they have a budget to work with. Part of it is really giving us the opportunity to build buildings how we think they should be. Adding this amount of installation in a Passive House building and making it airtight are things that go the extra mile that you don't normally see with a traditional building.

I think for us, it's giving some renewed passion for how buildings can be super-efficient as well.

Kelly: That's awesome. I often find that when people get the bug for Passive House, they wonder why they did anything else. When you go back to building code and you look at the levels of insulation or the levels of air tightness, you need to build a code building, it doesn't make any sense after you've seen the light, so to speak.

Ben: You got it. I think you told me that day one and I haven't forgotten that.

Kelly: Yes! How has learning more about Passive House or receiving the training and working on a Passive House project, how has that impacted you on a personal and/or professional level?

Ben: That's a great question. On a personal level, that awareness and that passion for sustainability. It just peaked that even further. I was really surprised to learn through this whole process how the delta between a traditional building and a Passive House building in terms of cost, actually isn't as much as I was thinking, originally. I think the gap that's there is closer than most might think.

I think it gives me some ammunition, in the future, to educate some of our clients into making choices that they may want to add extra insulation, or even go into a Passive House approach to a building. For me, it's really helped achieve that. Even if a building is not going be Passive House standard, at least it gives us some understanding of more education about producing thermal bridges and creating fully enclosed spaces and air tightness in the building.

From a professional level, I think it's really helped my understanding of how we detail buildings and how we can improve our processes.

Kelly: That's great. Is there anything that's surprising or surprised you from your learning about the Passive House industry…something that stood out, or that was a wow moment?

Ben: Yes, two things, one is the cost. I was surprised to see the difference in the cost between traditional buildings and Passive House. I think that the delta has a good argument, especially for the project we're working on together. With a supportive housing model, they typically get more funding up front, but it's hard to get that sustained funding all through the lifespan of the building.

So for an organization that's doing something like that and holding a building for its lifespan, if they can find that initial money to just make up that little bit of difference to go from traditional building to Passive House standard…that to me is hugely beneficial from a long-term perspective, so I thought that was really interesting.

I think the other thing it offers is the thermal comfort. That's what I didn't really think about coming into the Passive House model. Yes, it's energy efficient, but I didn't even really think about how much better occupants can feel in this space.

Kelly: That's a huge impact that a lot of people really don't understand when you're talking about building better or building high-performance buildings like Passive House.

When you're looking at affordable housing or supportive housing and getting the capital money up front to make these improvements, it can be done and often is an encouragement to do this because that operational cost…later on those funds are harder to get. But even moving a little bit further than that, the social equity that is offered to the people that live in these buildings when they have better living conditions or more comfortable living conditions or better housing stock, it really improves their quality of life as well.

It's not only financial, it's mental health and a physical health aspect of it as well. That is a bit of a knock-on effect that people don't often see or think about until you get further in. That's one thing that's really surprised me about the Passive House industry is building better housing stock and the impacts on the health and quality of life that people see when they live in these buildings. It’s a more holistic situation that you don't often think of because it's like, oh, it’s just affordable housing. It's going get built however it's going to get built, but people have to live in these things too.

Often, they're lower income or they have issues where it's harder for them to find quality housing, so it's a great initiative when these supportive housing organizations start looking at Passive Houses as an option.

Ben: Yes, and for me, I've heard Bjarke Ingels of BIG Architecture talk a few times about this concept of hedonistic sustainability. That's the kind of philosophy where sustainability can actually be more enjoyable and comfortable and liveable. For me, when you think about sustainable building, you're thinking about, okay, I have to restrict all the window sizes and you're creating these massively thick walls.

I think a lot of people can think that would restrict your design ability and restrict how you can design a building to make it beautiful. I'm really interested in how we can use this technology, use a Passive House concept, but still make great architecture.

Kelly: Absolutely.

That's one of the things that I often hear from architects is when you get into these Passive House buildings, the history and the project examples that you would have to look at, typical houses or buildings historically done to Passive House are often, simple, boxy, maybe limited in their aesthetics. But there is that whole connection and tie-in that you have to make it nice to look at. You have to do aesthetics. It has to be pleasing, but it also has to perform well. And having those two things mixed together is really fundamental to the process of architecture, but also to the process of our build environment and people enjoying the building that you're going to put them in so that it's not just a box with tiny little windows that looks horrible because an energy modeller designed it and not an architect or somebody with that kind of prowess or design acumen. So yes, I hear what you're saying.

Andrew: I'll jump in as well, picking up on the point about ongoing cost and benefits, and really there is a win-win-win all around we see with projects. We have a long-term client in the UK and they've been doing Passive House for13 years or so. They've found that they've got good long-term running operational experience and they found they're affordable housing, but they're willing to pay a bit more 10, 15% more because they're a Passive House. They have lower turnover, and lower renter arrears, so actually, it's financially more favourable for them to build a Passive House than a conventional building.

Ben: Yes, we're seeing more and more models like that where Passive House just seems to knit in that whole concept. You think about long-term scale of the building, it's really a no-brainer to go Passive House.

You're saving all that cost and creating a better indoor environment for X number of years.

Kelly: It's a really great business model. I don't understand why people are so averse to it sometimes. They just need to cross the bridge and see the light.

I think it's just awareness and education.

Ben: I think you just getting the word out, I think you guys have done a great job of advertising Passive House. I think the more and more we talk about it, engage with builders and organizations that do architecture and construction, the more and more we can improve our landscape.

Kelly: Yes, absolutely.

What advice would you have for any other firms getting into Passive House or looking to start their first Passive House project or dabbling a little bit here and there?

Ben: My advice for a firm that's thinking about doing Passive House is to be prepared to fully rethink how you would put together details. I think we've been working in the industry... through your career, you learn different techniques and acceptable details that are, I'll say, traditional or standard. That's what's been expected in our industry. 

With Passive House, it really pushes you that extra mile to rethink how we cover our details and insulation, how we make the building airtight from mechanical electrical design, just creating a centralized system that works with the building very well.

I think my advice too, would be to, if it's your first building or you're just getting into Passive House, engage an organization like Peel Passive House with your mechanical electrical teams, especially as early as you can in the process. It's not really scary or overwhelming to get into Passive House, it's just that the approach and the whole design aspect of the building is different.

Andrew: I'm glad you picked up on the education of other team members, not just the architects, but mechanical, in particular. We find that when a broader part of the team—even sometimes a client, or if there's a construction manager involved—getting them through training really helps. Everyone starts speaking the same language, has the fundamentals of Passive House and requirements and it becomes a much smoother process.

Ben: Yes, absolutely.

Kelly: Anything new and exciting in the sustainability sector? You said you have another Passive House project possibly in the pipeline. Maybe you could share a bit of that?

Ben: Yes from a design side, WalterFedy has some really interesting projects on the sustainability front that we're very interested in, very passionate about.

We're very excited to be working on net zero mass timber, and then more Passive House. I think as an organization, WalterFedy is really committed to sustainability, this concept of beyond zero carbon. We talk about it on the WalterFedy website. I think the current goal for us is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 60%.

That's over the 2017 baseline, which we're reducing to 2030. We're currently tracking our carbon footprint that we generate through electricity, water, natural gas usage, the amount of garbage that we generate, emissions generated by business travel and employee commuting. We're really committed to tracking all that data. That's part of our model and concept with Sustainable Waterloo Region. We're tracking those in relationship to our past usage.

Kelly: Do you do any offsets or credits or something to help offset any of your carbon consumption? Especially when you're talking about employee travel. I know airfare is quite substantial when it comes to that. Is it a track initiative or is it a track and credit initiative?

Ben: I think it's a bit of both. Tracking is a big part of it, just to give us a baseline understanding of where we are, so as we do things like lighting upgrades, we know how much of an impact we're making.

From this point forward, WalterFedy is very committed to purchasing enough credits like carbon offset credits annually, then I think the plan is to do an additional 10% to bring us to beyond zero.

Kelly: That's exciting.

Ben: Yes! I think COVID's really changed the way we've approached things like commuting and hybrid working models.

It's an interesting thing happening in the workplace. We're implementing electric vehicle charging as well. Leveraging electronic communications to reduce business travel as well.

I found COVID really helped people realize that you don't need to be there in person.

You can do a webcam. Video chat and it's almost well, I not almost the same, but it's a very similar approach. You don't need to see everybody all the time. It was really interesting when we were all in lockdown, the carbon emissions that they were tracking with satellites were just dropping astronomically.

People weren't going anywhere and their cars, their planes, like nothing was moving and it. It was so impressive to see. It was like, oh, that's not going be sustainable, but it was nice to see for a little bit there when we were all in lockdown.

Yes, for a while there it looked like we hit our five-year goal in the course of a month.

Kelly: Oh I know…

Ben: …so I guess we can just stop tracking this, we've accomplished our goal then!

Kelly: Forget about it. It's fine. [chuckles]

If you had a magic wand and can solve a problem, what would it be?

Ben: That's a great question.

I think cost and awareness are two things that I'd love to change. From an awareness perspective, educating the clients and people we work with about what they can do with buildings and how much better they can be with just a little bit more effort, a different way of doing things.

And then the cost as well, just, different ways of approaching a similar problem. As things like mass timber become more and more popular, the economy of scale is going to drive the price down. Those are the two things I would change. I'll just add one more piece:

From an awareness piece, I think that the general public doesn't necessarily understand the implications of our build environment. I think a lot of the focus has been on personal vehicles as greenhouse gas emitters, but buildings contribute to something like 50% of the global CO2 emission.

If we can just take some steps to reduce that number, that would be the perfect world. I think we try to reduce that number as much as we can with things like Passive House, and embodied carbon methods, like mass timber, those are all methodologies that can help reduce that impact on our world.

Kelly: Absolutely. I find there are a lot of people who don't realize how much energy their house consumes or how much less energy it could consume if it were built right. That's always an eye-opener, especially when we go through our training courses. 

One of the very first days we ask the question: where do you think your energy's going in your house? And then give them the data of where it's actually going. When people realize that, oh, I'm paying way more than heating than I could, it's really a bit of an eye-opener of the benefits of building good housing stock. It all comes down to that awareness and that education. Those are really great fundamentals.

Was there anything that we didn't ask that you would like to answer? 

Ben: I thought people always just ask an architect who their favourite building is or who their favourite architect is? I thought that was a standard question…I was expecting a curve belt like that, but...

Kelly: …Who's your favourite architect?

Ben: I think I have a couple of different favourite buildings I can talk about. Kelly, put your earmuffs on for this one, but the Aqua building in Chicago is one of my favourite buildings. But from what I understand, it is a very poor-performing building. There's a lot of thermal bridging through the balconies.

Kelly: We use that as an example in one of our courses on what not to do.

Ben: I remember that. As a sculptural building, it's beautiful just to stand there. I've been to Chicago many times and just to stand there and look at the building, it's pretty fascinating. I really enjoy it.

That's by Studio Gang Architects, I believe. I also really like 57 West by, by BIG Architects in New York City. I think it's one of those projects that really responds to the site it's on, in an incredible way. It was really a sculpted building that responds to the kind the tracking of the sun to bring in a lot of natural light to every single unit.

So not necessarily great examples of high energy-efficient design, but ones that are more on the architectural spectrum of what I think are beautiful buildings.

Kelly: Very aesthetically pleasing. Yeah. I'll agree with you there. Energy, not so much, but aesthetically pleasing for sure.

Ben: Definitely.

Kelly: If somebody wants to learn more about you Ben or WalterFedy, how can they best reach you?

Ben: They can reach out to me through LinkedIn. That's probably the best way if you don't know who I am. If you just search Ben Gregory, WalterFedy, I'm sure it'll come up. That's probably the best way to, to track me down if you don't have my email address.

Kelly: Awesome. This brings an end to our time together, and I just wanted to thank you, Ben, for taking time out of your busy day. I know we're all a bit slammed these days, so it was great that you were able to share your journey with Passive House with us and our listeners. 

We really appreciate getting to know your process and your story into architecture. It's really great.

Ben: Thanks for having me. This has been great.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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