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North Vancouver's new-school approach tackles carbon emissions

Atrium in North Vancouver's Ecole Handsworth Secondary school
The beauty of the new Handsworth Secondary is beyond skin deep, with a hybrid heating system that slashes carbon emissions and a ventilation system that shone during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo courtesy Ed White @edwhitephotographics)

District plans all-electric school as part of clean energy journey

Part of a series on BC Hydro Clean Energy Champions: businesses, homes, and institutions – large and small – recognized for reducing their reliance on fossil fuels.

The North Vancouver School District (NVSD) first took the bold step of employing integrated design and bringing a hybrid heating system – a combination of electric heat pumps and gas boilers – to cut emissions in a new secondary school project in 2007. But lessons learned there, including the importance of efficient building envelopes and careful consideration of occupant needs, have upped the ante in the school district's fight against carbon emissions.

Exhibits A and B are new buildings for both Ecole Argyle Secondary and Ecole Handsworth Secondary schools, which aren't just thrillingly bright and modern places of learning. Hybrid heating systems at both schools are helping save a combined 230 tonnes of C02 per year compared to the previous buildings.

That's a 48% emissions reduction at Handsworth, which was one of the district's biggest emitters of CO2, and 37% at Argyle for a combined CO2 savings equivalent to taking 50 gas-powered cars off the road.

"As an organization, we're really committed to reducing carbon emissions," says Luke Smeaton, the NVSD's manager of sustainability, energy and environmental planning. "We've always had environmental considerations front and centre, in everything we do. The tagline for our school district is 'The natural place to learn', and our strategic plan identifies environmental stewardship as one of six key goals for the organization."

At both Argyle and Handsworth, the bulk of the funding for construction came from the B.C. Government's Seismic Mitigation Program. While building the new schools to current earthquake standards, the NVSD embraced the opportunity to also further its climate action goals through switching from natural gas to renewable electricity for more of its operations.

The ideas in play at the NVSD are catching on. After Smeaton gave a presentation on the design of the new Handsworth to BC Hydro's energy manager network last year, he's had calls from other school districts asking that he present directly to their capital project teams.

What they'll be hearing from Smeaton is an explanation of the NVSD's approach to new builds and how projects have harnessed clean and renewable BC Hydro electricity so far. And how they're about to embark on an even more ambitious project: an all-electric elementary school.

Rendering of a new elementary school coming to North Vancouver's Cloverley neighbourhood
A rendering of an elementary school planned for North Vancouver's Cloverley neighborhood. The all-electric school will employ electric heat pumps and electric boilers – along with solar power generation – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. (Image courtesy DA Architects + Planners)

New elementary school designed to have 85% fewer GHG emissions

Demolition and site preparation on the Cloverley project has already begun. A new $64 million school utilizing mass timber structural elements, is due to open in September 2026.

The school is designed to be all-electric, with greenhouse gas emissions targeted to be 85% below that of a typical school.

"We're taking a whole-building approach, considering envelope, systems, and operational practices, especially as we develop strategies for managing our peak electrical demand," says Smeaton. "We'll have air-source heat pumps at Cloverley, and there will be some fairly significant backup electric boilers."

The use of heat pumps with electric boiler backup will be a big differentiator at the new elementary school, which will have the capacity for 585 students. The project also includes a BC Ministry-funded Neighbourhood Learning Centre, and a child care centre funded separately through an application to the ChildCareBC New Spaces Fund and $3.5 million from the City of North Vancouver.

'I've always had a thing for heat pumps'

By the time Smeaton joined the school district seven years ago, he was already well-versed in energy efficiency and decarbonization initiatives aimed at moving buildings away from reliance on fossil fuels. He worked for years as an energy and sustainability consultant and his experience with sustainable technologies reaches way back to his childhood.

"I've always had a thing for heat pumps," says Smeaton. "I'm from New Zealand, and my dad was a refrigeration technician while I was growing up. In the late '80s, I helped him install one of the first residential heat pumps under our house. I actually did a school project that was basically a business case comparing a heat pump to a wood stove, first costs, running costs, etc. So it's funny that I ended up as an energy manager now."

Once Smeaton got on the sustainability train, he had little interest in jumping off, consulting on innovative sustainable building projects in New Zealand, Australia, and the UK, before coming to Canada. But as much as he arrived at the NVSD as a sustainability champion, he was about to learn how different it all looks from the perspective of the building owner and operator rather than the consultant.

Library in North Vancouver's Ecole Handsworth Secondary school
Large windows inviting natural light into the school, and outside seating and study space are part of Handsworth Secondary’s allure. (Photo courtesy Ed White @edwhitephotographics)

Demystifying building systems for school staff

It's one thing to design and build a school to deliver comfort, energy savings, and emissions reductions. It's quite another thing to operate them effectively so that costs are in check and students, teachers, and staff are happy.

While delivering significant CO2 reductions, annual operating costs at Argyle and Handsworth have increased by only 17% and 10% respectively. This is a small price to pay for the greatly improved buildings with their vast array of new offerings and amenities for students.

Smeaton says the traditional process of getting building systems operating "as intended" is only a starting point because the nuances of occupant needs and system performance aren't really known until people move in and start using the building.

"You might get staff commenting that a space is too warm and something's wrong with the building," he says. "But then you investigate and find a gigantic photocopier or laptop charging carts placed where they were not anticipated. The system may be doing what the designers intended, but that might not align with what the occupants actually need."

Occupant education is also a very important aspect of high performance building operation. That's why staff at Argyle and Handsworth got a quick-start guide to explain the systems in place at the new schools. Staff need to know, for instance, that while the school's displacement ventilation system can provide some level of cooling as the school year heads toward summer, the system does not deliver full air conditioning.

"When people first move into a new building, it's easy for misinformation to float around," he says. "So, we provide training and information to manage occupant expectations and help them work with the building, not against it."

Smeaton recognizes the huge team effort required to build new schools. "We appreciate everyone that contributes to NVSD projects and are excited to continue our clean energy journey as we create more healthy, safe, and inclusive learning environments."