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Jan 16

Sustainability Exec on What it's Going to Take to Meet Climate Goals

A candid conversation with HOK's, Susan Rowley, on her journey in sustainability and how she came to champion Passive House

Kelly Fisher
Andrew Peel



Kelly:  If you wanted to start off, Andrew and Andy, with our intentions, then I can jump into some of the questions. 

Andy: The intention behind this is to get some insight in terms of your position in sustainability and just your journey with Passive House.

Susan: At HOK, my title is Senior Sustainable Design Specialist. That's it's quite the mouthful. I was hired for the HOK Canadian office to spearhead the sustainable design practice. My background, my first degree was mechanical engineering. I worked in pulp and paper. My first job was for Shell, I worked in the petroleum industry. I used to design service stations and I worked in a refinery and things like that. Then I went back to school, did my graduate degree in environmental psychology and with the lens of health and wellness, the psychology of space and how it impacts our wellness. This was pre-Fitwell. I started working with my thesis director as a consultant in what was being called workplace strategic consulting. When I graduated from my master's degree, I started working for a mechanical engineering firm and I'm from Montreal.

The first half of my career was in French and Montreal. I was doing LEED work. I'm also a LEED accredited professional. I was the chair of the Quebec, Canada green building council, the Quebec chapter, for quite a while. I spearheaded the sustainability practice for that.

The company was called Bouthillette Parizeau and they're a great firm. Then I moved to Toronto and, I've worked at other practices. I've worked in real estate. I've worked for Pomerleau in construction. I've been all over the place. My final resting place is here working for the architectural field.

I really love this work because it integrates everything. How I got into Passive House? It's a weird story. I stumbled across it during COVID, going a little crazy, at home, because I like to be out and about. I discovered the Passive House Accelerator and started hanging out, if you can say that, with these geeks.

And the reason why I ended up that way is, there's always something that bothered me about LEED and this why I eventually left LEED for about 10 years. I had a breaking up with LEED. It was the whole language of energy, for example, and it's [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design].

The hypocrisy is very glaring. They would basically talk about the cost of energy in doing an analysis of a base case. You'd make up a hypothetical base case, and then you would show how much you're saving from this hypothetical base case. I found it all a little bit...not substantial.

And I saw things that were being built and it just wasn't answering what we needed to do. As we barrel forward to 2030, where we have these commitments that we have to make, and it's getting quite obvious that we need to be building differently. I came back to Passive House and I will admit 15 years ago, I looked at Passive House and said, "those guys are nuts!" (Laughs)

Because I came from environmental psychology, this whole sense of "this great stuff happening in LEED about natural light and acoustics and, there's air quality [etc., etc.,]..." But I said, okay, I'm still going to take that that is in LEED but I'm going to inject in the way that we talk about building from Passive House.

What I've been doing since I arrived at HOK, in this role that I think it was June, just recently: we've brought in Kelly and Andrew, and we've got a whole bunch of professionals who are signed up and learning about Passive House. It's actually quite exciting seeing the way that they're starting to talk. Because I see their chats going on and I can see that they're seeing things differently and it's very exciting. That's the gist of what I've been doing and how I got here. 

Kelly: Awesome. I think that's a good place to start. You may have unintentionally answered some of our scripted questions. To help us break the ice and loosen things up a bit, what was your favorite Flintstone vitamin growing up? 

Susan: (Laughs) I'm older than that, my kids had Flintstone vitamins. 

Kelly: What was their favorite Flintstone vitamins? I'm surprised... my mom would always take one when she gave them to us. 

Susan: That's when you know, cod liver oil, I'm from that generation. Yuck. 

Kelly: I remember my mother trying to give that to us. It was never very fun. 

Susan: It was good for you. It was like a taste of what something good for you was supposed to taste like, cod liver oil. 

Kelly: Next one, what did you want to be when you were a kid and why?

Susan: Weirdly, an architect. And I didn't become an architect because I went to McGill. I went to McGill University. I'm from Montreal and it's funny, my sister just sent me a whole bunch of letters I had written when I was young because she'd kept them all, and she dumped them on me and I read through it, and I went to the McGill open house and they had all this guash. Is that the word? I don't know if that's the right word, but all this artwork that they'd done in the architectural department. I'm in pure and applied science at CEGEP. I'm doing chemistry, calculus, physics, biology. You want me to do guash? There's no way I'm going into art! I'm going into science. So I went into engineering instead. 

Kelly: I think you knew right from the beginning then. 

Susan: Art scared me. How am I supposed to get a good mark on art? I didn't get it. 

Kelly: It all depends on whoever's judging you too. It has nothing to do with your own inclinations. I hated art too. It was all about numbers to me. I hear you. 

Susan: You're the PHP person. That's a kind of art in itself. 

Kelly: It's much nicer art. There's generally a right answer. 

Kelly: Another question, maybe you touched on a little bit already, but where has your passion for sustainability stem from ?

Susan: I guess I was always environmental. Sometimes you could call it a little bit cheap, in a way I'm cheap, but I guess that there's a type of economy and in sustainability, of course, there's the three P's. But it really pivoted when I started to study environment and behavior. There's that whole component of when you talk about sustainability, if there's the environment, but there's a health and wellness component that goes to it. I landed in that way through the health and wellness and because I'm a mechanical engineer, the whole thing about heating and ventilation...and I just landed there.

Kelly: Did your previous experience in the petroleum industry help navigate your trajectory into sustainability? Did you pick up anything from there? Of how perhaps we shouldn't be doing things this way, or maybe there's a way to use less, or to reduce consumption, or anything like that?

Susan: You know, it was funny because when I took that job, out of McGill engineering, it was wow, you've made it! You got a job at Shell. You're the best! And you got a cell phone. And it's a good company. Interestingly, it is these companies with the highest greenhouse gas emissions who are being the most proactive in terms of how they're addressing it.

Kelly: Oh, that's cool. How has your passion with sustainability and perhaps, as you said, the three P's or your efforts with HOK, how has your passion and determination fueled your advocacy for Passive House and sustainability at HOK? 

Susan: I have to be careful because I think I'm too passionate about it. And it's at HOK in Canada. It's a global firm, we're in Asia, very big in the US. But in Canada, we have a big interiors team, so I have to be careful at HOK that I'm keeping my mind sharp to help the interiors team as well. It's not that I don't feel that Passive House is not going to help interiors. There are many advantages, but it's a bit removed from what they do. For example, the client we're working with now, the reason why we hope that they might consider [Passive House]...is they'll be losing all of those trench heaters and have more space to work with and the fact that the thermal comfort is more evenly distributed across the space. Space becomes more usable. And it's always about the square footage, how much can you use. With a Passive House paradigm...you really have to feel it and witness it, that there's more usable space.

Kelly: That's great. For others out there in the industry, whether it's architects or engineers or designers who might be looking to get into a similar role, such as yourself with sustainability specialist, what type of person do you think that they should be and what should they prepare for possible challenges in their career?

Susan: What type of person should they be? You know what I really like about this field, sustainability, is that it's everything. It's when people talk about sustainability, all depends where you're coming from. If you're from the Passive House world, you're thinking in building science, envelope, you're thinking energy reduction. But if you're coming from the social aspect, you can be thinking the community aspect and equity and diversity. So the type of person is: everybody can be in sustainability. Actually, one of my goals is that we don't talk so much about sustainability, that it will be, there will be a new world because it just will be the way that we build and the way that we design.

Kelly: I 100% agree. It has to be part of, it has to be a faux pas at some point where it's just ingrained in everything we do. Okay, moving along. I'm just going to skip a couple of our scripted questions here because Susan gave us some context in her lovely introduction.

How did you become a champion for Passive House in your organization? Why has it fallen in your lap to get all of these people in for training? How have you been pushing for this extra level of certification? 

Susan: It's funny that you say, "why has it fallen in your lap?" It was, "why have I thrown it on them?" more likely. It didn't fall on my lap. I took it.

Kelly: Why did you make work for yourself?

Susan: It's not just the city of Toronto, you look everywhere and it's coming. It's this tsunami that's coming. It's now that we need to be understanding this approach and for us, it's obvious "of course we do this." I need to sometimes strip that away and say, look, everybody's coming from a different place, different training different eyes or glasses. I felt my role is to make sure that we all are seeing this in the same way and what needs to happen, in how we design. I didn't want it to be me who says, have you looked at this? Have you looked at the thermal bridging for example, and how about air tightness? It shouldn't be me asking these questions. I want them all to be asking these questions so that we're all moving forward and stepping it up a notch.

Kelly: That's great. Put it back on everybody else to have that awareness and that knowledge and foundational skill set too, is really important for this industry. 

That leads us into the next bit here. What was the journey like in getting 19 colleagues to sign up for the course? And how did you get management approval for this?

Susan: (Laughs) You know how long it took, right? 

Kelly: Yes. 

Susan: That was the hard part. You don't want to be like, "We need to do it! We need to do it!" You have to [say] "Hey..." and then you come in this way, and then you come in that way, and you sort of let it sit for a bit and you go, "Hey, how about that again?"

We have amazing management at HOK. If I weren't at HOK, this couldn't have happened because they see it coming too. I should share with you when you get hired at HOK, one of the requirements is that you get your LEED Green Associate at a minimum and everybody gets it. There is this automatic call to understand what is sustainable design at our firm, just a base level. I was challenged that to say, okay, there's that base level that we're going to start with, but this is what is appropriate now. And it wasn't just me...I basically said, "Hey, we're going to start a cohort who wants to study this," and it's interesting. I don't know if it's because of the lockdown and people are stir crazy, but everyone was just "Yeah, we'll do that."

Then when the company says we're going to support you to do it, they're like, "Woohoo!" It got really exciting and I wish I were in that group. To see what's happening there. How are they engaging? And if I could just ask a question and this is all scripted, but how is it going? Are they asking questions?

Kelly: They are asking a lot of questions. There's a lot of engagement. We've got a lot of group exercises that they've gone through, some quizzes and stuff, and everybody's really excited. We've got a lot of people asking really great questions and having a lot of conversation around everything that we've been giving them so far.

It's really great to see.

Susan: Great. That's great to hear.

Kelly: Further on the journey of getting the cohort set up within your firm were there any kind of persuasion tools or different approaches you had to get people motivated for the time commitment? Because it's a four-week effort for the virtual content and then we've got a lot of on-demand sessions after. Did you face any hurdles getting the time commitment from them?

Susan: At HOK, we have a certain amount of time that the company pays for training. We call that at HOK "You Hours." But for this one, it goes well beyond what we provide. No, we were very upfront about how many hours were required. We had information sessions. Every month we have a call that everybody in HOK Canada, 135 or 150 people, depending on who joined this call. It's a virtual get together and...it's a celebration of "This person got their LEED Green Associate, or this person got married. This person had a baby." These are some volunteer initiatives we're working on. It's a very organic get-together. I would take five to seven minutes to give a little spiel about what's happening in sustainability. That's where I would raise the subject, "We're thinking of getting [together] this study group, let me know if you're interested." Then I got interest and I was coordinating all of these people [who] are interested and I would send out  a message and say, "Okay, we're going to have an information session, come and join if you're interested."

We said, "These are the courses. These are the hours," but the thinking was if we could get enough of them, momentum, everybody doing this together, I think that's what's missing in a way, when we're all still working remotely. I think that was something that maybe helped, people sort of felt this is something we can do together and talk, because everyone works in their little "silos."

This is an opportunity where they can come together and share and learn something very exciting.

Kelly: One last question on this...Maybe we have two more questions on this effort. Did you have any allies to support your efforts to help you get that "Yes" for this final approval, was there anybody in HOK that really helped support the endeavor?

I know you mentioned earlier that there were a couple of people...everybody generally sees the Passive Houses coming as a standard and understanding its influence on the industry. Do you have anybody else that maybe you look up to for support or mentorship that really helped you get that final "Yes"?

Susan: Absolutely. Our design director, Ben Fehrmann, he really understands the importance of this. His role as the design director is--everyone brings their own skill sets and personality to their roles--is a very pragmatic and sensible understanding of climate action. It's not just about, for the example, the aesthetics. He really understands what needs to happen. He was very strong at promoting this and our Principal, Managing Principal, Paul Gogan was really insightful and absolutely supporting this. I could just go on and on. I don't think there was one person who said, "I'm not so sure about this." They were all on board. 

Kelly: That's really great. 

Susan: I had to pull it all together and show: These are the hours it's going to take, this is what it's going to cost.

Are you aware? Do you understand this? And are we okay? This is not like LEED AP (Accredited Professional) because that still takes a fair amount of studying. I think people are often scared of that, and we maybe don't talk enough about it. That could be why people don't really know when they sign up but there is a whole written, handwritten aspect of this exam. It's definitely a more rigorous exam than anything I've taken in my professional career.

Kelly: I agree with that.  It was very stressful exam, but glad that you've signed 19 people up for that.

Is there anything that you wish you had to help you on your journey? Materials, resources, statistics...How could we have supported you better with with the process and your journey?

Susan: I hadn't really thought about that. What could be helpful? I think there was a lot of mystery for a lot of the people getting on board, what is Passive House? Just the name itself is unfortunate in many ways. We all know what I'm saying there. I think we could do better as Passive House geeks to promote it because it's growing up, it's moving beyond residential. It's becoming bigger quickly. We need to somehow put it out there that it's more than just a house and it's more than just passive. It's a strong paradigm that will help the building industry meet their climate goals. That's more powerful, I think, than the story that we've been telling of just the history of Passive House. It's good. It's interesting. But it's always starting with residential and I think that's a bit of a turnoff. My professional life has never been residential, it's always been commercial, industrial. It's been big buildings. I think that's a bit why I initially was kind of, "It's too hokey. Too little. Not interested." And for me to think...what could other people thinking who aren't even in the sustainable design industry? I think we need to rethink how we're branding ourselves. 

Kelly: Oh, absolutely. There's a lot of confusion I find sometimes when you say, oh, I'm going to do Passive House for school and they're like, "What, how does that apply?" I think it's just the literal translation from one language to the other, but it is something that often comes up. I would agree, definitely. 

Susan: Well then the passive design: "Oh, I do, I do passive," ...you're like, "Yes, that's good, but that's not quite what we're talking about. "

Kelly: It's not the same thing. I hear you. 

Where do you see the industry going? You've alluded to a few times that, it's creeping in from all different aspects, all different kind of areas of construction, different project types, but where do you see the industry going as a whole within Canada?

Susan: The building industry or the Passive House industry?

Kelly: The Passive House industry. 

Susan: I was involved in LEED when it first came about. I was living in Quebec and I was the Chair of the Green Building Council there. I watched how LEED gained traction to the point where I would say that municipal standards, for example, the Toronto Green Standard or even out in California, the Cal Green, you need to have LEED Gold there. There's many municipalities now that asked for LEED or elements of LEED. I see Passive House going that way as well. And we're seeing it, it's happening. I think very soon people are going to understand that's what's going to happen. 

Kelly: It's a slow infiltration into the industry. Very much similar to LEED where it just gets picked up sporadically and then it just comes around. And before, you know it, everything's going to be Passive House, or sorry, high-performance building. 

Interestingly, it's all on these definitions and we, Passive House geeks, we know what we're talking about. And it's interesting, the project we were working on together, where we have a high performance case. And then we have a Passive House case. The high performance case isn't even as good as the Passive House case is what we're saying in our language. I remember my, one of my formal titles was director of a high performance building. And I'm like, "that could mean anything." That could mean LEED. It could be quasi-net zero, it's so ambiguous. There's a lot of those titles coming and hopefully with the infiltration of Passive House in the industry, it's going to make it a lot more refined.

What advice would you have for other like-minded people in the sustainability space? Not related to HOK training, but just generally in the sustainability space? 

Susan: What advice would I have for someone in the sustainability space?

Kelly: It's a loaded question. I know. 

Susan: Just go for it. People come from all over with different lenses. I think the more people that we have in this field, in this work the more good it can do. I just think I'm lucky to be working in this field. Why isn't everybody doing this? This is the best, you're helping with climate action and on the same token, I bring in that lens of health and wellness. You're helping to make the built environment help with wellness, relieving stress and enabling more equitable and diverse communities, etc., etc. There are many good things that you can be doing. 

Kelly: It has many knock-on effects and so many different sectors. It's really just the fundamental of everything I find. That's really great advice. 

Susan: We're not biased.

Kelly: No, not at all. We're not already drinking the Kool-Aid. (Laughs)

My last question, it's something that was asked to me at one point that I find puts everything into perspective, but if you had a magic wand to fix one thing in the world, what would it be and why?

Susan: One thing in the world. Recently, I've started seeing the world quite differently than I ever used to. I think it has to do with my lens of embodied carbon. I am now horrified sometimes. I think it was middle of the pandemic. I headed down to the Eaton Centre for some random, weird reason, and I was shocked. I think it could be that. I'd been so isolated for so long and all the consumerism just knocked me or winded me.

If I had a magic wand, I wish everybody could have that. That feeling that I had that was "We need to do something differently. This is not sustainable. This is scaring me. This is frightening." I'm thinking of the future generations. I'm thinking of 50 years from now, you see these scenes of Manhattan being flooded, everyone in a kayak in Manhattan (Laughs). But it's, it's real. I have a friend, who has a place in Florida and I showed her, "Do you see what's going to happen to this place? This is 2050 or 2080. I'm showing you." I wish everybody could have that [realization] so that they'll understand why we have to change quickly. 

Kelly: Oh, that's awesome. My answer was circular economy. Very similar. 


Susan: I'd like to ask what are your visions? [If] I could ask Kelly and Andrew where we are heading in the Passive House field, community, or the building industry...what do you feel is going to happen in the next five, 10 years? 

Andrew: Maybe I'll answer that or I'll give a first answer. We see in general where things are going as you pointed out with the Toronto Green Standard, ratcheting up performance. Different jurisdictions are moving at different paces. I think we're moving more and more towards normalization, that while you might not call it or certify as Passive House, just those key requirements get embedded. Different than principles like, "oh, solar access," things like that, but more key requirements, indoor air, quality, comfort, things like that. A high level for your TEDI right that really gets embedded. And then more and more verification of that which is part and parcel Passive House, blower door testing things like that gets more and more integrated and gets ratcheted up as well.

So it's not just a paper exercise, but you're actually getting the building support as expected, right? I think that's going to continue. And maybe not every jurisdiction gets to Passive House, but I think ones that really want to take action on climate, we'll get near there.

Kelly: My answer is very similar to Andrew's, it was just be more of a Passive House becoming the norm. And for those that get the bug, when they go through the training, you just think to yourself, why is this not code? My hope for where it ends up is, Passive House becomes the norm. It becomes the way we build . Everybody becomes more conscious of their consumption and their comfort and not accepting anything that's subpar as norm. It just shouldn't, that just shouldn't happen. We should always be, being mindful of our energy and our consumption and Passive House is an easy way to get there. And the uptick of that in the construction industry, it's coming and it's got a little bit more to go, but I'm really hoping it comes along. 

Susan: And then my last question, if I may is about the existing building situation, how. What could happen to expedite the change that's needed to the existing buildings to address climate change or take climate action.

Andrew: I'd say standardization of solutions. And we may--maybe you can't fully get there with retrofits because many different characteristics in existing buildings--but there are archetypes. The tower retrofit, like the 15, 20-story tower than a, say, 40-story tower, that's maybe a different question, but there are different archetypes and we just, we need to go through pilot projects with them, figure out the solutions and then figure out how to optimize them, to deliver them, cost-effectively in a time efficient manner as well. 


Andrew: I'll ask another question around HOK practice. Now with the growing understanding of Passive House, do you foresee being able to embed Passive House as business as usual, basically saying you've got a client...it's not even necessarily a discussion around Passive House. It's "we know how to do it now. That's how we're going to design buildings."

Susan: I do. I've already started integrating it into some of our specs, unbeknownst to many people. That's what I see as my job, is sneaking it in. That's what I was doing for LEED, I was integrating into our basic specs, some requirements that were LEED-driven and I see myself doing the same thing. It might catch the industry by surprise when I start spec'ing out air tightness and then air tightness testing, for example. It might cause people to get very scared, but that's what I feel is my role is to push it and to test it and to poke it and to make it better. Good question.

Andrew: We're here to support folks like you, that really want to make a difference. And actually I just see it as an aside kind of more and more, our role is to do that and, support the HOKs of the world to start doing it yourself. Because, we can't be one of the few firms doing Passive House as a side...now that's our main gig, but we're a small firm. Even if we go to fifty, a hundred people, it's a drop in the bucket. Being able to support folks like you that are embedded in these organizations to really shift things. I think that's that's where we can make a bigger impact.

Susan: I agree. Thank you very much. This has been a lot of fun and nice seeing you guys!

Andrew: Likewise. Thank you very much for your time. 


This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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