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

The policy and timeline—a new action plan for all Toronto towers.
The policy and timeline—a new action plan for all Toronto towers.

What are some ways older buildings can lower GHG emissions that come from heating and cooling? Are there examples of older buildings that have already done this?

Grayson: Older buildings can reduce GHG emissions from heating and cooling using the following strategies (listed in order of both ease of implementation and ROI):
● better manage temperature set points (set the building thermostat higher in summer and lower in winter);
● better maintain systems (a regularly tuned up system is more efficient and produces less GHG emissions);
● engage residents in conservation (close windows when the heat or air -conditioner is on, open windows when you can take advantage of free heating/cooling);
● use caulk and weather-stripping to seal air leaks around doors and windows (costs $10/bottle);
● better insulate the building (especially the roof and basement, and walls where accessible);
● upgrade older, failing equipment to the most efficient alternative on the market; and
● pursue a whole building retrofit to improve building envelope and mechanical systems, and once you have a more efficient building you can invest in a smaller, more efficient replacement for your heating and cooling systems (make sure it is electric).

How will doing costly retrofits now help property owners in the future?

Grayson: Costly investments now will have a long-term ROI because:
● capital is really cheap right now, so it is a good time to borrow;
● energy is relatively cheap right now, but costs are very likely to go up over time;
● making investments reduces operating expenses for the building, which provides a ROI;
● making investments also provide other clear financial benefits for owners including a reduced annual maintenance cost and a better tenant experience (which will reduce tenant turnover, and in deregulated buildings should lead to higher rents and lower vacancy rates);
● with government-owned buildings, they pay these energy bills directly so they get a direct ROI in energy savings; and
● for private buildings, the tenants get the benefits from energy savings (not the owner), so there needs to be a way to recover a ROI from tenants (either by increasing rent, or by having tenants pay over time for the investments that provide them with a net energy savings on their monthly bills).

What are some immediate actions building owners can take to improve aging structures?

Grayson: Some immediate action building owners can take are as follows:
● engage tenants in conservation efforts;
● better manage and maintain these buildings (control daily operating schedules, maintain heating and cooling equipment, etc.); and
● make low-cost investments to make the building more efficient (seal cracks with weather stripping and caulk, add low-cost insulation, and convert any non-LED lighting to LED).

Toronto’s towers (both public buildings and private stock) are critical affordable housing for over 250,000 in the Toronto metro area. Moving these buildings to net zero while preserving affordability is a critical goal, and needs to be a consideration in how and how fast these buildings pursue a net-zero carbon goal. The good news is most investments these buildings can make in energy efficiency have a ROI in lower energy costs for their tenants—tenants should be ready to pay a little more rent for their housing, but investments should be structured so that any increase in rent is offset by reductions in the residents’ energy costs.

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