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Ottawa Housing for Homeless Will Need Little Energy

Construction will soon wrap on Canada's first 'Passiv'-style supportive housing complex.

By David P. Ball 22 Apr 2016 | Tyee Solutions Society

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

This series is produced by Tyee Solutions Society. TSS funders neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other TSS produced articles, please visit www.tyeesolutions.org for contacts and information.

A low-income housing provider in Ottawa is showing that ambitious and even extreme climate targets aren't a luxury just for the rich.

Ottawa's Salus Corporation, a non-profit serving people with mental health and housing challenges, is set to unveil what could be North America's largest energy-neutral building, certified by the European Passivhaus organization to require almost no additional heating beyond the sun, the earth, and its occupants' own physical activity.

"This will be the first of its kind in the world in a northern climate on this scale," executive director Lisa Ker boasted earlier this year, as she fitted me with a hardhat and steel-toed boots to visit the construction site.

Instead of a conventional wood frame, this project's bones are all metal, which helps fit the custom-made, ultra-thick insulation, and also saves on fire insurance.

The triple-pane windows are imported from Europe. All cracks and joints are carefully sealed, and the whole exterior closely monitored by sensors for escaping heat.

Geothermal tubing circling its foundations below ground will help regulate the temperature even in Ottawa's notoriously harsh winters.

"Everything in Passivhaus relies on a major underlying principle," Ker explained, "which is insulation."

'We've built a little battleship'

Accompanying her on the tour of the four-storey building in a quiet residential suburb of Canada's capital was the project's construction manager, Scott Robert.

"These were built specifically for this job," he said, pointed proudly to a massive insulation panel. "They're not normally this thick or this durable."

"Once we're done, we'll have built a little battleship," he quipped, "but with the precision of a piano."

Each of the building's 42 bachelor units, which will house people currently in homeless shelters and in need of mental health support, will cost only $27 a year to heat.

Robert concedes the project's green goals didn't come easily. Accustomed to working on much larger towers, he initially assumed a small project would be a breeze.

"I thought, 'No problem, I can knock this thing up in no time.'" Instead, the building turned out to be "nothing but a challenge from the get-go. This is the smallest and most difficult thing I've ever built."

582px version of Building the Passivhaus project
Building the Passivhaus project turned out to be 'difficult,' but worthy, says builder Scott Robert. Photo by David P. Ball.

The detailed construction and high insulation standards, Robert said, were "a big learning curve. These are all brand new problems for me."

With learning curve came significant delays, mostly caused by initial concerns from neighbourhood residents, which pushed completion back by a year. The complex is now scheduled to be ready by June or July.

Even so, Ker said, the extra features added only about six to nine per cent to what it would have cost to build to conventional lower energy standards.

Savings could be 'incredible'

But even if the new building lives up to Ker's "conservative" estimate of being only 50 per cent cheaper than ordinary ones in its day-to-day heating costs, that saving will extend over its entire life.

If all works properly it could save far more -- as much as 85 per cent of conventional construction's heating bills. "Those savings alone are incredible," she enthused.

Education is another key to a successful project. Ker said tenants will be offered the chance to learn about the green goals of the building, and how they can help it achieve them.

There will also be food and native plant gardens on the site that residents will be invited to care for.

"We have a fairly ambitious agenda around educating tenants," she said -- but with the goal of building a sense of belonging, not preaching.

The education is important, she added, because the building's design doesn't allow for much waste. If a tenant opens a window in the winter, for instance, a sensor shuts off the heat to their unit.

582px version of Building the Passivhaus project
Exterior of the Ottawa Passivhaus project. Photo by David P. Ball.

But the building's been an opportunity to educate the capital region construction sector as well, introducing more workers to skills in efficient design and materials.

"There are many countries in Western Europe where this is the standard for public buildings," Ker noted. "If the public is going to be fronting the cash, then why not invest in something that over time is going to cost you much less?

The broader lesson is that "if the affordable housing sector can build this way, everyone can," she said.

"If we really mean what we say about addressing climate change, then buildings -- which are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions -- are one of the first places we should look."

By mid-summer, Ottawa's new and energy-sipping Passivhaus will give them something to look at.  [Tyee]

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