Climate resiliency video transcript:
Good evening, thanks for having me here. It’s important to start off by realizing that everything is connected. We can’t talk about one thing without connecting the dots to other impacts. How we choose to design our homes, our communities and cities is interconnected.
Our homes don’t exist in isolation; they affect and are shared by their community. If we want to achieve social justice, social equity, and create places that are welcoming, inclusive, and accessible, we can’t do that without considering the impact of design on our daily lives. Our sense of well-being is intimately linked to what we design, how we live, our sense of social connectedness, and how we feel about our surroundings. Our built environment affects our mental and physical health, our sense of belonging, and our sense of community. Our approach to sustainability drives all of these factors and is driven by them to help us achieve our goals. Sustainability outcomes aren’t in isolation. If they are, they’re just greenwashing. We can’t do one of these things well without considering the other.
You may have seen me share this infographic before. We spent far too long debating if climate change is real and failing to take meaningful action. I know where we are in this list and how pressing it is that we take action, but I admit sometimes it feels hopeless. Whether it’s an election outcome or a new apartment building around the corner that we don’t like, we have to see that these things are political decisions. So, the number one thing we need to do is become politically engaged.
Every single decision on the built environment is political at some level. Planning applications, zoning bylaws, official plans citing the location of new community infrastructure; these are all political decisions that affect how we get the community we strive for. The old adage is true: we need to think about the big global issues, but we also need to take local action. What can we do today, tomorrow, and next week to make our homes and communities resilient? Yes, we absolutely should invest in electric buses; that’s a good thing. And electric cars are also fine in that both are better than fossil fuel burning vehicles, and yes, our graded oil in Ontario is clean and it’s certainly cleaner than it was a generation ago, but an electric bus only lasts about a decade and an electric vehicle about the same. So, we commit ourselves to billions of dollars in replacement costs for short-lived equipment while our buildings continue to crumble, and we miss opportunities to invest in buildings that can sit there for decades quietly, not moving, and not using energy.
While you can sometimes get rebates for buying an electric car, which needs expensive infrastructure to charge and maintain, you never seem to see rebates for electric bikes that need far less infrastructure or maintenance, have a longer lifespan, and are better for the economy and better for our health. We need to invest in electrifying our buildings if we want to make real strides on achieving our goals. Just converting your gas furnace to an electric furnace isn’t going to do it by itself. Remember when I said, “Everything is connected”? Electric heat is very efficient, but it needs a better building to make it viable, better insulation, better windows, and more efficient air movement to keep us healthy and to tackle summer heat. We can’t just keep pumping in air conditioning, we also need better insulation, better glazing, shade from trees, and better ventilation to reduce our dependence on air conditioning.
The key isn’t just to electrify our homes’ energy needs but to go back to the 3 R’s. To start, we need to reduce our energy needs to make a more efficient building that needs less energy. That means more insulation, a better envelope, more efficient lighting, smaller spaces that take less energy to heat and cool and be located in a community where we can shop, work or otherwise, meet our daily needs by walking, biking or transit. We also need to reuse; We need to adopt our buildings instead of tearing them down to build new ones. We need to reuse our infrastructure by gently intensifying instead of building more suburbs that take away green space, which is critical to cooling our environments. We need to reuse energy by conserving it and extracting waste heat from exhaust, air, or water so that we waste less energy.
This chart is the age of public housing owned by the Toronto Community Housing Authority and likely close to resembles many cities. We invested enormously in the 60s and 70s in very little sense.
When we think of parks and public spaces, we don’t invest like we should in our existing urban communities. We need parks and public pools. We need shade from trees, places to sit and forge community. We also need to recycle. We need to use energy from recyclable and renewable resources, power our buildings with solar or wind or other renewables, and low or no waste energy sources. We need to use ground source, district heating and cooling systems, and air source heat pumps to take advantage of natural and regenerative systems. We need to look at renewable building materials. Concrete buildings are great for high rises, but they consume enormous amounts of energy to create the concrete.
A mass timber building is made up of smaller trees sequestering carbon instead of using it. Renewable building materials that are good for our health and good for our planet can also be recycled. When the building is at the end of its life, or needs to be modified, mass timber buildings are also a much more human scale with less impact on our infrastructure and they’re easier to heat and cool sustainably.
If a sample gas bill shows an annual consumption of 2224 cubic meters of natural gas in a modest Bungalow that converts to some 23,500 kilowatt hours of electricity if it could magically be converted overnight. While some of that gas can and has been trimmed by converting to an induction stove or getting rid of the gas dryer or hot water tank those individual items are small potatoes: that might be 50 or so cubic meters in a typical month. So just converting to an electric furnace would result in thousands of dollars in Hydro bills every year on top of that spending fifteen or twenty thousand dollars to convert a gas furnace to an electric furnace clearly this isn’t a solution by itself. But if we improve the wall insulation and increase the thermal performance of doors and windows then that Peak current natural gas demand of 400 cubic meters of gas, or 4 200 kilowatt hours of electricity in a month, could be reduced by 40 percent with a better envelope. That takes us down to about 2500 kilowatt hours and if one solar panel can produce 1.8 kilowatt hours of power per day that’s about 54 kilowatt hours per month. And if each solar panel is about two square meters that means you need around 46 solar panels. That means you need in total something like 92 square meters of roof mounted solar. That’s a little over a thousand square feet and easily accommodated on a typical suburban home. But what if you don’t have 92 square meters of roof you can use or for some other reason can’t generate quite all of that electricity? So, then you go back to the three R’s. Is there another energy load that you can reduce? Is there another energy source that can be reused? Is there some source of energy that can be recycled? What happens if you add a ground source heat pump? What’s the power required for the pump? Will the cost of the well, the pump and the infrastructure be traded off against the cost of more insulation to further reduce thermal loss? What if you have an option to drill several ground source heat pumps and share them with your neighbours, splitting the cost among many in a district heating system? What if your neighbour has excess solar capacity?
All this leads towards passive house standards. I’d encourage you to check out Lloyd Alter’s book Living the One and a Half Degree Lifestyle. Passive house standards are a goal. We should be working towards making our buildings better, and as a bonus get better social outcomes, we get healthier environments and better experiences. Yes, this costs money to do but the payback is enormous.
On the top right is an image of the OAA headquarters. I was part of the committee during the renovations carried out by David Fujiwara architect on Ruth Cocker’s original building. Affectionately it’s considered a six-sided glass box on stilts. It isn’t really but there is an awful lot of glass. It’s got kind of a regular shape and it’s entirely up on posts exposed to weather on all sides. At twenty-six thousand square feet it’s not a small building but had utility bills well into the six figures. After Renovations the winter hydro bill was about fifty dollars a month at worst. The payback on that renovation is about 17 years based on 2015 utility rates and as we know if utility rates go up that can be reduced to a payback of less than a decade. One of the key factors that made the building more comfortable has been cross-ventilation instead of relying solely on-air conditioning to achieve summer thermal comfort.
So, what can we do? Well, we need to demand better building codes. Remember when I said everything’s connected that architecture is a political act? In this article in Corporate Nights from April of this year, Chris Ballard shows us how our code server is going backward. At one time Ontario was a leader and we were slowly moving towards a net zero energy code, but no more. That’s a political decision. The cost of upgrading installation, replacing energy sources, and improving energy efficiency in our homes isn’t cheap. It can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars and it’s not unrealistic to imagine a six-figure cost when all is said and done. Lack of funding choices means that this is individually financed. We need governments to step up with real funding, as well as banks and insurance companies to create models where more resilient, reliable and energy efficient communities have better access to better funding. A good example of that is the Toronto atmospheric fund, and we need to think of ways to do things just like that here in Ottawa.
We also need to design better. We don’t enforce our existing codes and standards for durability or resilience and instead we pawn off the life cycle cost of buildings, suburbs, and other infrastructure to future Generations. We need to see design not as a commodity but as an investment that pays off in better, transformative, and positive social outcomes. We need to think of the things we can do locally. Can we plant a tree? Can we walk to the grocery store or ride a bike? Can we buy local goods that don’t need to be transported as far? When our windows need to be replaced, can we make them better than they were before? Can we live in a smaller space, wear a sweater, or turn the heat down slightly to reduce our energy needs?
Modest changes in set points like that can have a huge impact in energy efficiency. When we see an infill project being proposed, let’s support it because it means less sprawl, less parking, and more neighbors to support our local businesses. When we see bike lanes being proposed, can we support them so that it’s safer for us or our kids to get to the store, school, or work? Lastly, we need to build resilience. We know that there are increasingly extreme weather events; weather that’s worsening cold, more extreme winters, more severe summer storms and that these will test the ability of our grid to provide our homes with power. Making our homes independent of that reliance means we’re able to literally weather the storm. Better thermal resilience means that even if we’re out of power for several days we lose less heat and can survive winter. Better designing for resilience means we have cross drafts for ventilation and are less dependent on-air conditioning. Having a resilient community means we can go to the local store park or community center to meet our daily needs for food, community, and solis. Thanks very much.
Toon Dreessen is president of Ottawa-based Architects DCA and past-president of the Ontario Association of Architects. For a sample of our projects, check out our portfolio here. Follow us @ArchitectsDCA on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram.