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November 24, 2021

How Building Smarter Today Can Help the Housing Supply Crisis Tomorrow

High Rise Building against Cloudy sky

Dan Dicaire, Manager of Conservation and Sustainability at the Ottawa Community Housing Corporation (OCHC)

Dan Dicaire, Manager of Conservation and Sustainability at the Ottawa Community Housing Corporation (OCHC), explains how energy efficiency and investing in retrofits are essential to building housing that lasts.

The Housing Supply Challenge, delivered by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, invites applicants to propose solutions that will reduce or remove barriers to new housing supply. Evergreen supports applicants of the Housing Supply Challenge by providing guidance, mentorship, and resources needed to develop and improve their submission.

Evergreen is asking experts from the housing sector across Canada to share their experiences and highlight some key barriers to new housing supply.

Sustainability has long been treated as an afterthought when it comes to new housing development, and is too often the first feature to go when it comes to budgetary constraints. Dan Dicaire, Manager of Conservation and Sustainability at the Ottawa Community Housing Corporation (OCHC), explains how energy efficiency and investing in retrofits are essential to building housing that lasts.

The Housing Crisis and the Climate Crisis

Ottawa Community Housing Corporation (OCHC) is the largest social housing provider in Ottawa, and the second largest in Ontario. Currently, OCHC maintains nearly 15,000 homes to approximately 32,000 tenants, including seniors, parents, couples, singles, and persons with special needs.

We are aiming to add thousands of new units to our portfolio in the coming years to make housing more affordable and to help alleviate the housing crisis. But we also have these 15,000 units of existing housing, and they are currently emitting 29,000 tonnes of CO2 per year through their energy usage. We are advancing new ways to bring those numbers down to help Canada reach its Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Reduction targets.

Protecting Existing Stock

The average building in the OCHC portfolio was built in the 1960s during a time with different building standards and energy efficiency standards.

Take, for example, two 60-year-old windows beside each other in one house. It’s possible that one will leak and let water into the wall, and the other window won’t leak. In any given home, there will be somewhere between 16 to 20 windows. Not all of them will leak, but after 60 years, it’s more than likely some of them are no longer properly sealed. Multiply that by 15,000 homes, and a significant amount of windows will leak. If the windows aren’t fixed, water will get in, mold will be created, the structural integrity of the home will become compromised, and you can end up with a situation where the asset, if not maintained, becomes unlivable. The windows will need to be replaced, and that costs money, however if it is ignored, greater costs are likely to appear down the line.

Retrofitting as an Investment

In the spring of 2020, OCHC initiated the Prefabricated Exterior Energy Retrofit Pilot Project in a partnership with Natural Resources Canada. The retrofit involved the installation of prefabricated, insulated panels enveloping four 60-year-old townhomes in Ottawa’s Overbrook neighbourhood. The homes received electrical upgrades, new roofs, new windows, and solar panels. The townhouses went from emitting 18 tonnes of CO2 annually, costing over $7,000 in utility costs, down to net zero emissions by improving efficiency and producing energy through the solar panels.

We see the value in putting that upfront investment to ensure that one, we keep the asset around, two, that it’s better performing, and three, that we get to hit our GHG targets. We’re looking at the rest of our 15,000 units with those priorities in mind.

Building New Buildings with the Future in Mind

Ottawa has a community called Rochester Heights that had 100 units. It was a very old and sub-optimally designed site. The heat escaped through the roof in the winter, for example, melting the snow, and creating large icicles; it was a big liability from both an energy and safety point of view. We decided that in this instance there was an opportunity to create some new housing.

OCHC demolished 26 units on the site and were able to build 140 units of new affordable housing, including an apartment building with 108 homes, which is currently the largest residential Passive House ever built in Canada. Passive Housing refers to a high efficiency building, filled with thick insulation and energy recovery ventilators, dramatically decreasing electricity consumption and keeping heating bills for each unit under $200 per year. A similar redevelopment will be taking place on the site of the remaining 74 units which have also been demolished.

Start Immediately

Retrofitting and building Passive Housing offer long-term savings, but both require long term planning which is not front of mind for many developers. There are programs like CMHC’s National Housing Co-Investment Fund, which fund both new development as well as deep energy retrofits. In order to access these funds, aggressive energy reduction targets have to be met. It’s changed the conversation. Before, development groups would treat sustainability as an optional feature, something that would be nice to have but which would be first feature to get cut when the budget called for it. Now, development groups will come to me saying, “We want this money. How do we build sustainable housing?”

I hope the popularity of programs like these sends a message to political parties, but ultimately, we can’t stop and wait for political cycles to be right to make these changes. The day that a funding agreement commits to building new housing, it will still take another four years for that building to be completed. Design, construction, and occupancy all take time. Building new housing takes time. You have to plan ahead in order to get that stock delivered.

As told to Evergreen.

Dan Dicaire has an undergraduate and a Master’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Ottawa. He is a P. Eng and a Certified Energy Manager. He currently works for Ottawa Community Housing (OCH) as the Manager of Energy and Sustainability. Over the past 11 years, he has coordinated the installation of 500 kW of solar arrays on 36 different OCH sites and managed a portfolio wide LED Lighting Retrofit which will save over 4.6 GWh of electricity annually. Under his guidance, OCH’s Sustainability department has saved over $46.5M and in 2020, Dan received the Association of Energy Engineers’ Young Energy Professional of the Year award for Canada. He is the proud father of a lovely 6 year old daughter.

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