British Columbia Introduces the Affordable Housing Renewal Pilot Project

If you live in a relatively new apartment or house in British Columbia, Canada, or one that has been upgraded to be more energy efficient, you probably take a few things for granted. Presumably, the air in your home is healthy, the walls are free of mold and moisture, and the windows are free of condensation and drafts. You may also enjoy comparably low utility bills—a result of your well-insulated home and energy-efficient lights and appliances.

However, if you live in an older building, or one in need of upgrades, you might be keenly aware that your home lacks these benefits. This is the reality for many residents of B.C.’s non-profit housing buildings, many of which are aging and in real need of renewal. Energy use in non-profit housing units is nearly double the B.C. residential average. Leaky, unhealthy and inefficient buildings disproportionately affect some residents of affordable housing, who may already be more vulnerable to health and affordability impacts.

Imagine if we could transform B.C.’s affordable housing—making units healthier, more comfortable, and more affordable for residents while giving the buildings a much-needed makeover? That’s the vision behind our Affordable Housing Renewal pilot project. It aims to kick-start new ways to retrofit and refurbish buildings—cutting energy use and carbon pollution without placing new financial burdens on residents in a region already plagued by unaffordability.

Why Don’t We Improve Our Buildings?

Despite the many benefits that come with improving our homes and buildings through retrofits, in Canada we often see investment in buildings deferred or improvements that result in relatively small energy-efficiency gains. There are a few reasons for this. First, building owners are often reluctant to make investments in buildings that do not pay back in a reasonable timeframe through energy-bill savings. Most people perceive an acceptable payback time to be no more than six to nine years. However, a well-refurbished building can last for 50 years or more. Projects that take longer to pay back are still worthwhile in the long run and should be considered more often.

A second factor, related to payback time, is the relatively low cost of energy in B.C. Although it’s easy to perceive our energy costs as high, B.C. in fact has some of the lowest utility rates in North America. This makes the business case for reducing energy use harder to justify. Another significant challenge with retrofitting residential buildings is the disruption to occupants when major work needs to be done on insulation, windows or mechanical systems. These issues and others have resulted in a lot of buildings in the province being drafty, leaky or poorly insulated. Because we often burn natural gas for heating in B.C., this means our buildings are also generating far more carbon pollution than they would if they were more efficient.

How Will Aggregation Help?

These problems are precisely what an aggregated retrofit approach is meant to address. Aggregation of demand simply means we look for a building type, such as low-rise apartments, that is very common. We then group together a number of these similar buildings into one large project that companies can bid on, just like in any other infrastructure project. By designing a retrofit solution that is easily repeated, rather than customizing a bespoke solution for each building, we can drive up economies of scale and drive down costs.

Another advantage of the aggregated approach is that grouping together a large number of buildings in one competitive bidding process could attract larger companies to do the work. These large firms and consortiums, which often only bid on projects above a certain value, have significant capacity to perform research and development and come up with innovative, low-cost technologies and solutions to deliver the retrofits.

One innovation that has generated a lot of buzz in the renovation industry is prefabrication. Some prefabricated components, such as large structural insulated panels (SIPs), already are in use in the industry and can cut installation time and effort significantly. However, an aggregated project with a large number of similar buildings can enable prefabrication to reach the next level. Techniques like 3-D laser scanning are used to create a computer model of the buildings, which is then used to fabricate customized insulated panels that perfectly fit the exteriors. Using this method, improving insulation, airtightness and moisture resistance is as simple as attaching these panels to each building—something that can be done in a few days and without disrupting occupants.

Lessons from Europe

This ambitious approach to building renewal is a groundbreaking concept here in Canada, but it is actually not a new idea. In the Netherlands, retrofits of huge numbers of buildings are already happening through an initiative called Energiesprong. Energiesprong (translation: energy leap) is a retrofit aggregation program that has been piloted in social housing all over the country. The Netherlands has a plan to deliver more than 100,000 net-zero energy retrofits through Energiesprong and has completed over 2,000 so far. Amazingly, these building retrofits are now being completed in just one day with all of the components designed and prefabricated offsite and then installed with minimal disruption to occupants.

The Energiesprong model is catching on in the rest of Europe, as well, with pilot programs starting in the U.K., Germany and France. Closer to home, New York City is about to launch an ambitious pilot program similar to Energiesprong with six to 10 design teams being selected to work during the next few months to design an affordable and scalable retrofit solution for high-rise apartment towers.

These jurisdictions have recognized the benefits of the Energiesprong approach in reducing energy use and carbon pollution while extending the life of homes and making them healthier.

Bringing the Model to B.C.

In B.C., there are nearly 100,000 units of social, affordable and non-profit housing—more than half of which was built before 1990. Many of these buildings are owned and managed by B.C. Housing, but the majority are owned by non-profit housing societies whose diverse portfolios range from one building to dozens. One of the unique challenges facing B.C. affordable housing is the multitude of structures under which tenants pay for their rent and utilities, which may be partially or fully subsidized or protected from increases. This makes the business case for retrofits more challenging and makes a made-in-B.C. solution—one that applies the principles of Energiesprong to our particular context—essential.

Another issue that will need to be resolved as the concept of aggregation is applied across larger regions is the vastness and diversity of B.C. (and Canada) compared to the Netherlands. There, a single solution could be developed that works for the whole country with components easily shipped from a central location. In B.C., the diversity of climates and huge distances between cities adds some real complications and might reduce the number of buildings that can be effectively bundled.

For our pilot project, we will work with government and housing societies to determine how many and what type of buildings might be appropriate for a first round of retrofits in B.C. We will work with industry to determine what solutions are available and which technologies need further development. We will also work with stakeholders to determine how we can overcome procurement, supply chain and policy barriers to scale-up the idea to other markets.

Future Benefits

While making notable progress in reducing utility bills and carbon pollution, many building retrofit projects have so far primarily benefited large companies and higher-income individuals because of affordability barriers and limited opportunities for engagement. Low-income and marginalized households across B.C. are often the last or least to benefit from new green buildings or energy-efficiency initiatives. Investing in affordable housing provides an ideal opportunity to take a more equitable approach to urban development, one that benefits the entire community.

Our Affordable Housing Renewal project will not just benefit residents of affordable housing. Increasing demand for retrofits and energy efficiency creates economic activity and jobs (as many as 20 jobs for every $1 million invested). Energy efficiency is also one of the lowest-cost ways to reduce carbon pollution. Governments at all levels are starting to see the value of reinvesting in our buildings, in terms of meeting emissions-reduction goals and the social and health benefits that arise from revitalizing the spaces where we live and work.

Demonstrating that demand exists for large-scale building renewal projects, including aggregated retrofits, can help drive government policy and reduce some of the barriers that we’ve identified. If this approach is successful, the aggregation model could be scaled and applied to almost any type of building, paving the way for truly transformative change in B.C.’s built environment. Imagine an Energiesprong-inspired retrofit package coming to your home—making it in a single day more beautiful, healthier and more affordable to heat!

The challenge of future-proofing our homes and buildings in B.C. during the coming decades is a formidable one, but it also represents an amazing opportunity to revitalize our communities. Through the Affordable Housing Renewal pilot project, we aim to demonstrate that the challenges of aging, unhealthy buildings can be addressed with a solution that is affordable, fast and scalable while reducing carbon pollution and helping the province meet its climate commitments. In the process, we can create jobs in the clean economy and build a strong, prosperous future for B.C.’s communities.

About the Author

Dylan Heerema
Dylan Heerema is an analyst with the Buildings and Urban Solutions Program at the Calgary, Alberta, Canada-based Pembina Institute, a clean-energy think-tank.

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