Making What Already Exists Better

Fēnix Energy’s Edward Smith is retrofitting buildings by creating a sustainable network that reaches far beyond one structure

Edward Smith may not have been born in Canada, but that doesn’t make him any less of a Canadian. Originally from Glasgow, Scotland, Smith advocates teamwork, community service, and the power of a unified society. He has his sights on transforming Vancouver and the world into a better-connected and socially responsible place. Currently, as managing director of Fēnix Energy Ltd., Smith is working to connect buildings and unite people through sustainable energy retrofits.

Edward Smith (Photo: Tamea Burd)
Edward Smith (Photo: Tamea Burd)

“My passion has always been building teams,” Smith says. “My job is to continually emphasize strong teams and [be] part of a shared community, especially when it comes to energy.” Smith is no stranger to the sustainable world; in fact, he has been leading the charge since the movement captured the attention of North America. Smith certified the first two LEED Silver buildings in Canada, and Fēnix continues to use the framework along with ideas from Passive Haus and the Living Building Challenge.

Before founding Fēnix in 2010, Smith was CEO of consulting firm Cobalt Engineering. After more than 20 years of designing buildings, a sea change came from sustainability initiatives, and Smith realized that one of the biggest elements missing from existing buildings was a way to share and store thermal energy on a larger scale. That fact became a driver for creating Fēnix, which today provides energy retrofits to existing buildings. “We wanted to get into this market because there wasn’t anything out there making a big difference, even when buildings account for 40 percent of the world’s energy use,” Smith says. “Problems in society or in buildings could be due to a disconnect between the individual and the community.” That’s why Fēnix brings a holistic, community-based approach to its projects and its employee engagement.

From the beginning, Fēnix has been set up to make a difference. Smith started the company not only because he sought to continue his financial success but because he wanted to create social and economic success as well. “We’re not interested in any type of project where everyone involved does not win,” he says. Every single item Fēnix buys and every employee is from North America, with its system designed to stimulate growth in the economy and the green building market.

Today, Fēnix has partnered with the largest landowner in Canada, Cadillac Fairview, to create the first geoexchange retrofit in a downtown high-rise building: 777 Dunsmuir. Not to be confused with geothermal energy, geoexchange involves the storing and reuse of heat using the earth under a building as a thermal battery. Fēnix targeted this particular Cadillac Fairview project because it had numerous buildings in downtown Vancouver, including 12 office towers. And Cadillac Fairview was earmarked not only for its size but also because of its Green at Work initiative and its commitment to making a difference.

Smith spent years talking to Cadillac Fairview and conducting feasibility studies before finally convincing its leadership to take a risk on a new company that wanted to drill 400-foot bore holes below its building. “If we could get someone like Cadillac Fairview to adopt something they perceived to be a risky proposition, then that would say a lot about us, what we can do, and what we can accomplish,” Smith says. “It gives us a huge amount of credibility. But this also speaks volumes about Cadillac Fairview, and we must credit them on their dedication to their Green at Work program.”

Fēnix has doubled in revenue in 2014 compared to 2013. It has been on a 100% growth pattern over the past few years.

Working nights, from six in the evening to six in the morning, to complete the project, Fēnix worked around the still-operating facility to get the project done in a timely and unobtrusive manner. “This is a demonstration project,” Smith says. It’s also a discrete project—one building in one system—and where Smith hopes to take this momentum is to expand that building into another so that the geoexchange system can begin to fully harness its potential. The goal is what Fēnix has trademarked as a Network Energy System, which takes low-temperature water and circulates it between buildings, allowing the buildings to share energy. Fēnix’s models have shown that such a system would stabilize energy needs between buildings and decrease greenhouse gases by 20 percent.

Next, the goal is to take it a step further to where Fēnix would own and operate thermal-energy assets in partnership with local utility companies. In fact, it’s already working closely with Fortis Alternative Energy Solutions on numerous projects. For example, 777 Dunsmuir finished its retrofitting process in September 2014 and had an 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gases and overall energy savings of 60 percent.

Everyone involved, directly and indirectly, benefits. And for Fēnix, this is hopefully just the tip of the iceberg.