Feeling warm outside? Look at the buildings around you

Mitacs intern helps Toronto-based design firm to incorporate microclimate analysis into its projects and, ultimately, improve building design

Imagine you’re having lunch on a courtyard patio downtown. It’s a crisp, sunny autumn day with a light breeze. Your table is against a south-facing brick wall that is bathed in sunlight and there’s a row of tall bushes at the edge of the patio that break the wind. You wore a jacket to the restaurant but after sitting for a few minutes, you’re warm enough to take it off and enjoy the sunshine on your bare arms.

After leaving the patio, you walk down the shady side of the street. With the sunshine gone, you have goosebumps in no time and put your jacket back on even before reaching the end of the block.

If you have experienced something similar, you’re not alone. Having substantially different levels of thermal comfort across a small region is an effect of microclimate — the climatic conditions of a specific area. With that in mind, the Toronto-based design firm KPMB Architects partnered with Ryerson University and Mitacs to improve building performance and, consequently, human comfort indoors and outdoors.

“We desired the ability to incorporate climate — and in particular microclimate — as an early-stage design driver in our projects. We really wanted the capability to quantify the effect of our architectural interventions in terms of comprehensive human thermal comfort indices,” says Geoffrey Turnbull, Director of Innovation at KPMB Architects.

Many features like canopies and the materials used in walls can influence the speed of wind and the amount of solar radiation, which has a direct impact on how people perceive temperature. To design buildings that provide more comfort both inside and outside, architects need to be able to simulate wind flows, shades, humidity, and thermal properties of different materials.

Through Mitacs’s Accelerate program, KPMB Architects was able to work with an intern last year that provided a solution for this challenge. In four months, Ryerson’s Master of Building Science student Jonathan Graham implemented a customized toolset for microclimate analysis and provided insights for improving outdoor thermal comfort in specific projects.

In addition, he shared his learning with the team and contributed to increase the firm’s knowledge about this type of analysis.

“By merit of their training and experience, architects have an intuition for microclimate. Being able to validate their understanding numerically — through simulations — was exciting for both of us,” Jonathan says.

His work allowed the company to incorporate microclimate and outdoor thermal comfort considerations in early discussions of many of their current projects.

Mutually beneficial knowledge for industry and academia

Not only KPMB benefited from Jonathan’s work; he also incorporated the scripts he developed during his internship into his master’s thesis. The opportunity of practising skills related to his studies was actually what first attracted him to the internship, along with the chance to collaborate with consultants with expertise in climate engineering.

“Using microclimate analysis tools in a production environment such as an architectural office forced me to become quicker and more creative in my use of them,” says Jonathan. “This, too, enhanced the quality of my thesis.”

Such was Jonathan’s success in the internship that KPMB hired him as a full-time member of the KPMB Lab, an in-house research and innovation group, where he continues to improve their microclimate analysis program and researches other pathways for innovation.

“I’ve been encouraged to research topics related to my education in building science — such as building life cycle analysis and machine learning — and to seek opportunities for their deployment in the office,” says Jonathan, who also highlights the added benefit of still having access to many learning and professional development opportunities at the firm.

Jonathan worked under the supervision of Umberto Berardi, associate professor in Ryerson’s Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science, who celebrates the success of the project.

“The company has now more interest in applied research and investigating resources to generate innovative design practice approaches,” he says. “Jonathan has since been hired and we are in touch with the company weekly.”

As a result of the project, two research papers were produced and will also contribute to advancing the academic knowledge in the area of sustainable architecture.

Mitacs thanks the Government of Canada for their support of the Accelerate research internship in this story. Across Canada, Mitacs also receives support from the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, the Government of Quebec, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, and the Government of Saskatchewan

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