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

January 18, 2021

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.[1]
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[2] (ULI) has released a new report[3] 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[4].

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[5] 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.[6] 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.

The policy and timeline—a new action plan for all Toronto towers. [7]
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.

Endnotes:
  1. [Image]: https://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Opener-4.jpg
  2. Urban Land Institute: https://uli.org/
  3. report: https://2os2f877tnl1dvtmc3wy0aq1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/ULI-ASP_Report_Toronto_Final_v2.pdf
  4. net-zero emissions by 2050: https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/water-environment/environmentally-friendly-city-initiatives/transformto/
  5. More than half: https://www.toronto.ca/services-payments/water-environment/environmentally-friendly-city-initiatives/transformto/torontos-greenhouse-gas-inventory/
  6. 650 Parliament St.: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/real-estate/toronto/article-moves-to-preserve-an-aging-but-critical-housing-supply/
  7. [Image]: https://www.constructioncanada.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Opener2.jpg

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