Exclusive: Urban Land Institute report urges Toronto to improve its aging public housing

In an exclusive interview, Billy Grayson, the Urban Land Institute (ULI's) chief sustainability expert, spoke to Construction Canada on how Toronto can improve its aging public housing and why it is vital to do so.
In an exclusive interview, Billy Grayson, the Urban Land Institute (ULI’s) chief sustainability expert, spoke to Construction Canada on how Toronto can improve its aging public housing and why it is vital to do so.
Images courtesy ULI

By Sadia Badhon

The nonprofit Urban Land Institute (ULI) has released a new report on how Toronto can improve its aging, but vital public housing supply. The report summarizes the findings of a week-long visit from ULI experts. That visit was sponsored by the City of Toronto after a unanimous vote to ramp up efforts to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.

However, the city’s aging apartment buildings stand in the way of the net-zero emissions goals. Over 400,000 people live in towers that were built 60 years ago. More than half of Toronto’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from heating and cooling its buildings. These towers are not just unsustainable, they can be dangerous. In 2018, a fire at 650 Parliament St. displaced 1500 tenants and cost $60 million in repairs.

Transforming these buildings is critical to Toronto’s economy, where immigration drives growth and a one per cent vacancy rate means every apartment counts. The report outlines several policy recommendations, including financial incentives for property owners to undertake the costly retrofits and zoning laws to bolster the supply of affordable housing. It also shows how these upgrades can pay for themselves in savings on energy and maintenance.

In an exclusive interview, Billy Grayson, ULI’s chief sustainability expert, spoke to Construction Canada on how Toronto can improve its aging public housing and why it is vital to do so.

Please outline some ways Toronto can improve its aging housing infrastructure?

Grayson: Investing in energy efficiency upgrades start with the low-hanging fruit with a good return on investment (ROI) (light-emitting diode [LED] lighting upgrades in all common areas, for example), then investing in deeper retrofits to the building envelope (exterior cladding for better insulation, high-efficiency windows), and finally upgrading the building heating systems (with more efficient gas-fired boilers, or even better, electric heating systems that can eventually be powered by renewable energy).

All of these investments would have a ROI for the city, but would take a very long time to pay back with just the energy savings (maybe 20 to 40 years). The city will have to look to other metrics to justify the projects, including how these investments improve tenant health and well-being, and how these investments also help improve building safety (avoiding catastrophic fires, or a major breakdown of heating systems in a cold Toronto winter).

How can improving Toronto’s aging buildings help achieve net-zero emissions by 2050?

Grayson: Buildings account for over 70 per cent of most cities’ GHG emissions, and more than half the buildings we have today will still be around in 2050. Toronto cannot achieve net zero by 2050 without significantly improving these existing buildings.

To achieve net zero in existing buildings, the city and building owners will need to take the following steps:
● make deep retrofits to the building envelope, heating, cooling, and mechanical systems to make the existing buildings as efficient as possible;
● electrify heating and cooling systems (remove any onsite natural gas and/or fuel oil use); and
● add onsite renewable energy (solar, wind, geothermal, biogas) or procure offsite renewable energy to power the building.

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