How to change the way we build

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]The City of Hamilton has recently declared a climate change emergency and to support action to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Phew! I sighed when hearing the news.

Finally, our elected representatives are starting to take climate change seriously. But despite this declaration, there are still a lot of questions needing answers as in how would we individually and collectively go about achieving this monumental task. At two recent meetings, I was provided with some clues and inspiration for how we could move towards net zero emissions in how we live and build housing. Presently, there are people and organizations within our community and in nearby municipalities that are already building to a higher standard through Passive House Design, a concept that has been around since 1988.

Passive House is a design standard that establishes stringent requirements for heating and cooling load/demand, air tightness, overall annual building energy demand and comfort criteria. Compliance is demonstrated through modelling and air tightness testing. Passive House buildings are both comfortable and durable, using very little energy over the entire life cycle. In Ontario, with our cold climate, the building enclosure system (its walls, roof, floor, windows, and doors) is required to have very high R-values, leading to the use of unconventional construction and specialized products. The ability for Passive House buildings to resist heat gain and loss ensures these efficiencies are maintained as our environment continues to change. Building to Passive House standards allows for long term preparedness.

Though building to Passive House standards is more expensive initially, the resulting buildings are less expensive to maintain over their life cycle, offering reduced utility and operational costs. Other benefits are increased comfort within the building overall and a reduction in the size and complexity of mechanical equipment, saving capital and operating costs. Because the building is so well-insulated, hardly any additional heating is needed at all–with the sun, occupants, appliances and the heat recovered from used air, covering a significant part of the heating demand. To supplement, the building is also heated or cooled via the fresh air from a mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat or energy recovery.

In the Crown Point neighbourhood, the YWCA redevelopment (which will provide 50 affordable housing units to women and women-led families) is being designed to the Passive House standard. At the recent community update meeting held on March 28 at HRIC (Hamilton Regional Indian Centre), I also learned that it will be the first mid-rise building in North America to use precast concrete panel walls. The aim is for the building to be 2050-ready and beyond. It will include triple-glazed windows, be super-insulated and air-tight, minimizing environmental climate and sound transfers. Utility costs are estimated to be reduced by up to 90%, with a 60% savings in operating costs. Additionally, there will be a back-up heating and cooling system with air fed heaters and chillers.

A recent federal funding announcement gave the project a boost of more than $10 million, almost halfway to the YWCA’s stated goal of just over $22 million. The YWCA rebuild is one of the first projects in Ontario to receive CHMC National House Co-Investment funding from the federal government. This achievement represents two and a half years of lobbying by the YWCA, demonstrating their commitment to building much-needed affordable housing in our neighbourhood and to a sustainable future by designing to the Passive House model. Having this type of build on Ottawa Street is a huge gain for the neighbourhood.

Awareness of Passive House is growing. On March 30, during Earth Hour, Eco Locke (Ecological Churches of Locke Street) hosted a panel discussion at First Unitarian Church of Hamilton called Change the Way We Build. Eco Locke’s mission is to practice and promote environmental awareness in our communities. Attendees were fortunate to gain insight from homeowners who have retrofitted their home to the Passive House standard and are working on minimizing their individual and family carbon footprints through rigorous analysis of their energy and water use, overall consumption and lifestyle.

Our building code standards are far too low for the changing climate we are already experiencing.

Additionally, Graham Cubitt, Director of Projects and Development at Indwell and Jamie Stephens, Manager of Housing Development in Oxford County spoke of their partnership and experiences in building affordable housing with Passive House design standards. Indwell is now working in five municipalities, with six projects under development using Passive House, two of which are in Hamilton. Oxford County in rural Southwestern Ontario is leading the way in the sense that they are demanding in their request-for-proposals a higher standard of energy efficiency (via Passive House) in affordable housing builds, as one of their goals is to keep utility costs low and predictable for tenants.

Our building code standards are far too low for the changing climate we are already experiencing. Building as usual is no longer acceptable; because as Indwell has learned, building to a higher standard is only marginally more costly, creates fewer greenhouse gas emissions and more comfortable buildings in the long run. This is better for both the earth and the humans who live here.

Let’s keep putting pressure on our councillors and mayor, let them know why climate change is an important issue for you personally and ask from them a specific commitment to do something, such as urging all City departments to prioritize construction of low-emission buildings, both public and private-sector, and renovations to existing buildings to achieve net zero emissions as soon as possible.

Make retrofits accessible to more households, particularly low-income tenants and homeowners, by introducing low-interest loan programs to upgrade the energy efficiency of their homes while lowering their energy bills. Ask your councillor when they will take action and be sure to follow-up with them. Point out the specific actions other municipalities are taking to reduce emissions to net zero, now that you know a bit about Oxford County’s approach to affordable housing development. Here is an opportunity for Hamilton to prove it is the ambitious city, by meeting the climate emergency head-on.
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