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North America’s largest green-building research centre opens in Ottawa this summer

CABER building

Solving big problems requires the audacity of a big idea — not to mention a massive effort to put it in motion. 

For Carleton’s Centre for Advanced Building Envelope Research (CABER) that effort was kick-started by the $5.1 million grant received by Dr. Cynthia Cruickshank in 2019 to accelerate innovation in the sustainable building sector. 

Cruickshank is a professor with Carleton’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and heads a team that has been toiling since last year to commission and calibrate the massive equipment they’ll use to conduct research into reducing greenhouse gas emissions through resilient buildings.

It’s no surprise that anticipation has been mounting to put the wheels of research in motion this summer. 

Two-storeys high

The size of the CABER facility – located on NRCan’s CanmetENERGY campus in Bells Corners – is something to behold, explains Cruickshank.

The building had to be this big to accommodate the two-storey high equipment, making it one of the largest facilities in North America.

CABER is equipped with three state-of-the-art pieces of equipment: a two-storey guarded hot box and climate chamber that simulates the indoors and outdoors, respectively, and examines the thermal and moisture performance of new and retrofit wall assemblies, a two-storey pressurized spray rack to assess moisture resilience, and in situ wall openings to examine the interaction between outdoors and the built environment. CABER simultaneously helps students and industry to address the technology gap on building retrofit solutions, while providing students with high quality training on hands-on experimental research. 

CABER buildingThe guarded hot box and climate chamber work in tandem to replicate North American climate extremes, producing temperatures that range from negative 40 to 55 degrees celsius, and humidity levels ranging from 10 to 90 per cent relative humidity. The climate chamber also has 91 thermal lights to simulate solar input.

Across the way (and also two-storeys high) the pressurized spray rack looks for points of failure in building samples using 96 nozzles to inundate them with water. Next to that are the in-situ wall openings, which includes six 3mx3m sites located around the Centre to conduct long-term comparative analysis of samples’ performance over the course of four seasons.

“When working with builders, it is important to understand the costs and risks associated with potential retrofit designs,” said Cruickshank. “We want to target retrofits comprehensively, understanding of risks and benefits, and synergies and trade-offs of design decisions between technology options, economics, and social considerations.”

Finally, a 16-tonne crane moves the samples from one machine to another, turning the entire operation into a gigantic assembly line.

Collaboration and partnerships

Creating the opportunity for new testing and training capabilities could not be done without collaboration.

Cruickshank works cross-departmentally with several faculties at Carleton University, such as the school of Architecture and Urbanism, as well as with several government partners including Natural Resources Canada, one of the program’s biggest collaborators.

“CABER has allowed us to build on existing research collaborations and create many new ones,” said Cruickshank. Crucially, that includes the pioneering engineering graduate students, who will be in high demand to fill this critical gap in knowledge.  

“Our students will graduate with a far superior level of expertise,” said Cruickshank. Right now she’s supervising four PhD and nine MASC candidates, while recruiting more.

Working with government partners also helps connect the team’s research with the broader community. Currently, Natural Resources Canada is establishing a scientific hub to facilitate the sharing of data and dissemination of research for academics, industry and community housing providers, like Ottawa Community Housing. 

“The factory-built renovation technologies we’ll be studying will give social housing co-operations new options to renovate their building stock, and the research outputs will support regulators as they renew codes and standards for improved energy and environmental performance,” said Cruickshank.

CABER building

For industry partners who want to get in on the action, there are a couple of pathways to explore. To “collaborate to commercialize,” start with the OCE VIP program, or alternatively consider applying for a research contract or an NSERC Alliance Grant.

One thing’s for certain, thinking this big will make the environmental impact of Canadian buildings much smaller. And that’s a good thing.