From carbon-neutral laneway homes to Passive House rental apartments, Canadian cities are quietly leading in building innovation
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In a country with relatively dense urban centers, a cold climate, and predominantly fossil fuel heating, it’s no wonder that for many of Canada’s largest cities, buildings are the largest single source of carbon emissions.
Recognizing both the need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and that they hold many of the tools to do so, Canadian local governments are approaching the built environment as a key leverage point to creating low-carbon cities. Builders are increasingly seeking first-mover advantage while building operators are hedging against the lifetime costs of electricity and heating fuels. Combined with sky-high real estate costs in cities like Toronto and Vancouver, public and private incentives for innovations to cut energy use, emissions, and long-term expenses in the building sector are stacking up.
Consequently, cities like Edmonton, Toronto, and Vancouver have been home to diverse and innovative building projects that are pushing the envelope in housing development. These experiments include a carbon-neutral laneway home, a nearly net zero WW2-era retrofit, and a Passive House rental apartment.
Edmonton, Alberta: Carbon-neutral laneway housing
With two bedrooms and a garage, this revenue and energy-generating laneway home in the Westmount neighborhood harnesses 100 percent of its heating needs from solar thermal energy and encompasses sustainable design features throughout.
Laneway homes, which are growing in popularity as a means of increasing urban housing stock, are small residential units built on the back lots of existing properties
Owners Karly Coleman and Andy Hengst teamed up with Edmonton-based design firm Carbon Busters to put together the 638 square foot ultra-efficient ”tiny house”, complete with 10 inch thick walls, LED lighting, and energy-saving appliances. According to Green Energy Futures, the house stores thermal energy from the sun in a 2,600 litre water tank and utilizes a solar PV system to provide electricity for the home’s operations, including the heat pumps.
While small is beautiful in terms of reducing construction material needs and energy consumption, this Edmonton Westmount laneway home proves that with clever design, petite can be powerful in terms of solar thermal and photovoltaic electricity generation.
Toronto, Ontario: Retrofitting a WW2 era home to near Net Zero standards
If the adage “the greenest building is the one that’s already standing” is true, then the Now House in Toronto sets the bar for what low-impact heritage housing can be. Clocking in at 70 years of age, and constructed as part of the post-WW2 “victory house” building boom, this renovated demonstration home in Topham Park now produces nearly as much energy as it consumes.
To achieve this feat, the retrofit team upgraded the Now House’s building envelope and insulation and installed enlarged and double-glazed windows, along with a new metal roof. Measures like this, combined with the installation of Energy Star appliances, accessible power cut-off switches, and efficient lighting, have slashed electricity and natural gas use in nearly half according to a Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) study on similar upgrades on other wartime housing.
On the energy generation side of the ledger, the Now House relies heavily on passive heating, and circulates warm water from the roof’s two solar collectors through a radiant heating system. The grid-connected home generates electricity from 16 rooftop solar panels, which has been able to take advantage of the Province of Ontario’s micro Feed-in-Tariff program.
With this type of housing making up a significant chunk of housing stock in the older neighborhoods of Canadian cities, lessons from projects like the Now House can help pave the way for ambitious retrofits on a larger scale.
Vancouver, British Columbia: Rental apartments, Passive House
Currently under construction, this 85-unit rental apartment complex called “The Heights” in East Vancouver will be the largest Passive House building in the country when complete. “Passive House” is a voluntary standard for ultra-low energy buildings. While the standard is most common in Germany and Scandinavia, it’s quickly growing in popularity in North America.
The Heights relies on a simple design with thick walls and insulation, high quality windows, and an efficient heat recovery system, which pre-heats incoming ventilation air from the waste energy leaving the building.
The City of Vancouver, which will require all new buildings to be zero emission by the year 2030, recently commissioned research that paints a clear picture of the costs and benefits of Passive House design. Preliminary results from the Passive House Costing Study have shown that the standard adds 2-7% in construction costs while cutting energy use and GHG emissions by up to 75%.
Aside from the operational cost savings and environmental benefits of The Heights’ design, it should be mentioned that the development fits well with the City’s desire for “complete streets”. The mixed-use zoning allows for street level commercial units, which will maintain or improve the neighborhood’s walkability—while adding to Vancouver’s sorely lacking rental unit supply.
With The Heights development still going up, Cornerstone Architecture reportedly has another 16 Passive House designs in the works, proving that ultra-low energy buildings are on the rise.
Putting it together
The economic and environmental performance of the homes of tomorrow depend on the work of today’s pioneering builders. With designers and builders rapidly innovating through pilot programs and cutting edge new constructions, next generation Canadian buildings will be poised to capitalize on the benefits of emerging energy efficiency and generation technologies.
The business case for such advances will only be strengthened by coming regulations, from the City of Vancouver’s Zero Emission Building Plan, to the Province of Ontario’s signals towards zero carbon homes, to the federal government’s incoming carbon pricing plan.
With this groundwork in place, new buildings of the future could be close to zero-emission while providing a number of economic and human health benefits.
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