Solving the Affordable Housing Crisis: Retrofitting Existing Buildings
In part two of our series, we continue to explore sustainable and innovative ways to fill gaps in our affordable housing supply.
In this article, we’ll look at the retrofitting of existing buildings, including restoration of existing deteriorating housing stock and adaptive reuse, to transform underutilized assets into affordable housing.
Recapping the Affordable Housing Challenge
As we noted in our first article, affordable housing has long been a challenge for major cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and New York. It’s also a challenge in much of the United Kingdom. One of the major obstacles in keeping up with the rising demand for affordable housing is that it takes too long to get new housing developments through the approval process, construction, and to market.
One way to help speed up the process is to focus more effort on restoring, retrofitting, or reusing existing buildings. Upgrading, maintaining, or reusing an existing building structure for a renewed use is typically less expensive than demolishing and constructing anew. And without question, these approaches are far better for the environment.
Many in the industry are also calling for governments to invest in green retrofits as part of post-COVID stimulus funding. Calls include those from the Pembina Institute, the UK Green Building Council, and this one from a group of US economists, professors, and veterans of the previous economic crisis.
We’ve also seen calls for governments to provide financial assistance to not-for-profit, multi-residential buildings, and calls for retrofits as part of an affordable housing strategy, such as this one from Pembina Institute, where a suggestion was made to create a top-up fund for National Housing Strategy-funded retrofits and new construction projects that achieve deep carbon reductions. These projects should ideally require stronger climate resiliency, provide more flexibility on meeting accessibility targets in retrofit situations, and create a market-rental preservation program.
Retrofitting Existing Buildings
Most of the affordable housing in our major cities is made up of existing multi-family residential rental towers. Many of these buildings, built to address previous housing affordability challenges in the 1960s and 1970s, have often been poorly maintained and, in many cases, can no longer provide safe and comfortable living conditions in their existing state of repair.
The utility costs associated with maintaining these highly inefficient buildings are forcing landlords to continually raise rents in this entry level housing category. This is an unsustainable situation for our environment and for housing affordability. Without question, one of the quickest way to get quality affordable housing to market is to invest in building envelope and mechanical and electrical systems retrofits on existing buildings.
Energy consumption reduction targets have been mandated for existing buildings in many jurisdictions. The measures required to meet these targets are the same measures required to make tenants comfortable and reduce the utility bills that are driving up rent. Both Local Law 97, in New York, and Toronto 2030 (and many other laws and initiatives internationally) are targeting drastic energy reduction measures that mandate that existing building owners make significant building envelope and systems upgrades to their buildings to meet these goals. In major cities in the United Kingdom, including London, which also faces chronic housing affordability issues, there is a growing trend toward “reskinning” as a way to get more affordable housing stock to market and overcome the affordable housing crisis. This means that a well-planned capital investment in meeting mandatory carbon reduction targets can also be an investment in tackling the housing affordability challenge.
Investments in high–performance building envelopes and insulation, boiler replacement, as well as improved thermostats for control, could result in greenhouse gas reduction of up to 70%. Although the upfront investment is significant, building envelope upgrades of this nature typically last 40 to 50 years and typically result in a financial payback at 17 years.
The capital investment necessary for existing building retrofits targeting carbon reduction and net-zero energy targets in general are difficult for smaller building owners but ideal for the affordable, multi-family residential housing sector, as these buildings are generally owned by large institutions, such as a city or housing authority. These institutions often have access to low interest financing and will also be paying the utility bills and operating costs for the building in perpetuity. This type of housing benefits from a maximized passive response of the building through simple systems such as a good thermal envelope, configuring windows for cross-ventilation, summertime shading structures, and ceiling fans. The goal should be to maximize the comfort of the occupants year-round.
Currently, Entuitive is involved in a number of Tower Renewal projects. These projects, undertaken for social housing authorities, municipalities, seniors’ residences, and multi-family residential building owners, take existing apartment buildings or communities and improve them toward greater sustainability, reduced energy consumption, increased resident comfort, and improved resilience. These projects are primarily undertaken in the affordable housing sector, including social housing and long-term care housing for seniors.
Entuitive is acting as Building Envelope and Structural Engineering Consultant for CityHousing Hamilton’s Ken Soble Tower, where, alongside ERA Architects, we’re engaged in a deep retrofit of the tower toward the Passive House EnerPHit Retrofit standard. The retrofit is designed to procure a 94% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Structurally, we’re removing balconies to reduce thermal bridging and with the building envelope we’re working toward improved thermal resistance, incorporating strict airtightness to allow downscaling of mechanical systems, using a low–embodied carbon mineral wool-based insulation system, and including fiberglass-framed windows and doors.
Ya’el Santopinto, an Associate at ERA Architects and project manager for the project, highlights the importance of this work.
“Tower Renewal is a strategy to secure the longevity of Canada’s aging apartment housing through retrofits to meet today’s standards for performance and comfort while maintaining affordability,” Ya’el says. “As we seek to increase Canada’s supply of affordable housing, Tower Renewal has never been more critical: ensuring aging apartments are not lost to deterioration or transformed into luxury buildings is just as essential as building new housing. Dozens of Tower Renewal projects are now underway across the country. ERA, in partnership with Entuitive, has been at the cutting edge of this shift. Projects such as the Ken Soble Tower EnerPHit demonstrate that affordable housing can pave the way for high-performance retrofits nation-wide.”
Entuitive is also working with ERA Architects and the Tower Renewal Partnership to retrofit a multi-tower affordable senior’s community in Toronto and have also recently completed energy retrofits at three Toronto Community Housing buildings in Scarborough.
In Calgary, we recently completed a revitalization project in East Village Place, an affordable housing development, with MTA. Entuitive was brought on as Building Envelope Consultants to do a thermal upgrade. The upgrade included new windows and cladding, reducing the R-value of the building, which will result in operational savings and better energy use. While it wasn’t our immediate goal in the scope of work, because of the project, the life of this affordable housing asset has been extended for another 30-40 years.
Of the project, MTA Architect Jeff Lyness had this to say: “It doesn’t matter the scope of the project, there is always value in collaborating with Entuitive to work on improving the state of repair of existing affordable housing assets. When we combine demonstrated energy savings in the residential units with ease of maintenance, we lessen the strain of affordability. Sustainability in this instance is not simply a technical solution to be referenced, it is the right thing to do because it supports an organization’s ability to provide access to safe and stable housing.”
We are working on several new build affordable housing developments with MTA in Alberta as well. New build construction will be the subject of the next article in our Entuitive affordable housing series.
Our team offers Energy Modelling, Building Envelope, and Building Restoration Consulting Services. We have the experience to guide owners and property managers towards cost-effective, sustainable retrofit investments geared towards meeting new energy reduction legislation. This will not only benefit the environment but also improve the quality and quantity of viable affordable housing options.
Adaptive reuse of existing buildings is another sustainable and cost-effective alternative to new construction and offers a great opportunity to enhance the supply of affordable housing in most cities. This is especially true in our current post-pandemic environment, in which we’re already seeing existing retail and commercial vacancies due to the financial challenges and changes in consumer behaviour brought on by COVID-19. Many, if not most, existing buildings are anticipated to require some level of retrofitting in order to meet new public health standards as a result of the virus and to ready these buildings for future pandemics.
With adaptive reuse the goal is to change the use of an existing building to an entirely different occupancy type. This is usually due to a reduction in demand for the current use or could be because the existing building no longer serves its original purpose in its community. One example of adaptive reuse in response to a sudden change in real estate market conditions occurred following 9/11. During this time, many businesses vacated office buildings in downtown New York relocating to addresses further uptown. Many large office buildings were then converted to rental apartment buildings, which eventually transformed the financial district into a more vibrant mixed-use neighbourhood.
Similar thinking can be applied to adapting buildings that face decline use post-COVID. We anticipate that many existing buildings, such as shopping centres that were already struggling before the pandemic, will be challenged to find enough tenants to make themselves viable again. We are already seeing a number of 1960s-era strip plazas being torn down for high–rise condominium development. As mentioned earlier, though, these projects tend to take up to a decade from land acquisition to revised occupancy and market availability. A decade is too long to address the urgency of the housing crisis we are facing.
Landlords and property owners of all building types impacted by the pandemic should be thinking about potential adaptive reuses. It’s possible that there are alternative occupancy types that might work well for their property while potentially addressing societal challenges (such as getting more affordable housing to those in need more quickly), being better for the environment, and still being profitable. It really is a good time to rethink the uses of many underutilized buildings and develop creative, forward–thinking designs that can benefit more people.
Do You Have a Site or Project?
Mike Hillcoat is a Principal at Entuitive. He leads our Toronto Restoration group, including many affordable and social housing projects. If you have a site or a project and would like to engage our advice or our services, reach out to him here.
You can also reach out to Heather Elliot to discuss our affordable housing work in Calgary and Chris van Dongen to discuss existing building envelope retrofits in Toronto.