On a quiet street, facing a bend of the North Saskatchewan River, a geometric network of scaffolding scales up the sides of several buildings and the east-side parking lot has become a staging ground for materials and major equipment. The Sundance Housing Co-op is in the middle of a major renovation.
But look carefully and something is missing. There’s no dumpster, brimming with old roof shingles or siding hastily ripped off nearby buildings. That’s because this isn’t a typical renovation project, where old is replaced with new.
The construction site at Sundance represents a first-of-its-kind-in-Canada project, a panelized deep energy retrofit. The idea is to put new materials on top of the existing structure, like a glove slipped over a cold hand. The aging stucco and wood siding will be carefully enclosed with new panels made of Hardie Siding – but first, eight inches of extra insulation will be blasted into the gap between the old building and its new exterior. A new roof will be installed over the old one, with the addition of R50 insulation to make the top of these buildings air-tight.
These upgrades, along with the addition of solar panels, will help put the buildings in the 43-year-old townhouse complex on the path to being net zero. The approach is modelled after the Energiesprong concept that’s been used in the Netherlands to retrofit over 1,000 buildings, which now generate as much energy as they use. In Edmonton, a crew of construction experts and volunteers from the Riverdale-based housing co-operative are now pioneering the model for a Canadian environment.
“We’re primarily just working on the exterior and replacing the old furnaces with air source heat pumps. These are all energy efficiency renovations,” says Peter Amerongen, managing partner at Butterwick Projects Ltd., which is doing the work at Sundance. “When you’re doing energy upgrades in a piecemeal fashion, you’re missing a logical, comprehensive plan. It’s easier, faster and less disruptive to do it all at once.”
While it might make sense, on paper, to tackle such upgrades in one mega-project, Amerongen is the first to admit the efforts with this type of project at Sundance have not been easy. Amerongen has over 50 years of experience in the construction industry, but he still calls this project “the hardest thing” he’s ever done.
There are 59 units in 15 buildings at the main Sundance site. Like a lot of building stock from the 1970s, Sundance faced significant maintenance issues a few years ago, with aging cedar siding and windows that were nearing the end of their life cycle.
A core group of volunteers, who would later become the Sundance Planning and Development Committee, knew they wanted to take on a deep energy retrofit. As Sandy Susut explains, residents at Sundance have always been interested in environmental causes and sustainability. During the co-op’s initial construction more than 40 years ago, members decided to adopt two-by-six construction for more insulation, going beyond the building code of the day – and foregoing closet doors to make this happen.
“Our committee members are all strongly committed to making a difference in the climate crisis. It propels us forward,” she says.
The plan got a major boost in January 2019 when Natural Resources Canada agreed to contribute $2.5 million to the project. In an email about its commitment to Sundance, NRCan notes that three-quarters of Canada’s building stock that will exist in 2030 is already built. “(We) recognize that housing and building retrofits, including deep energy retrofits, are necessary to help meeting our 2030 climate change target for greenhouse gas reductions, as well as achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.”
The NRCan contribution was significant, but far from the $10-million total cost. Sundance is a mixed income co-op and is committed to keeping housing charges as low as possible for members. The balance of the retrofit bill will be covered through several long-term mortgage and financing schemes.
Almost all members of the Sundance planning and development committee are retired. But, over the past two years, they’ve worked as problem solvers, mediators and educators. They require buy-in from the 100-odd members of the co-op to keep the project moving, and they’ve consulted the membership on everything from which grants to apply for and how they’ll finance the project, to what colour to choose for the new siding.
“None of us knew how long this would take, or how complex it would be. We just kept putting one foot in front of the other and dealt with complexities as they rose,” says Jean Ure, a long-time Sundance member.
Meanwhile, Amerongen was running into new challenges every day at the building site. The first duplex to undergo a deep energy retrofit was completed in 2019. Amerongen, mechanical engineer Stuart Fix and the rest of the Butterwick Projects team walked away from that first overhaul with 200 things to improve as they moved onto the next units. They realized they needed to upgrade the electrical service for the entire complex to allow for the old furnaces to be replaced with air-source heat pumps, which would bring the co-op even closer to its net-zero goal. It was a huge detour for the project, one that required directional drilling throughout the site to bring in new wiring.
Still, Amerongen is committed to keeping costs down. The team relies on wall panels that are manufactured off site, with high-efficiency windows already installed. The pre-fabricated nature of that work saves money, but it also requires perfect measurements to make it all fit.
“There’s a bit of terror that goes on when you’re dimensioning these things. If one of those panels doesn’t fit, we’ve got six people and an expensive crane at the site and we’re stuck in our tracks. We have to get these panels bang on,” he says.
Amerongen and the Sundance Housing Co-Op are committed to sharing what they learn with others. They know they’re the first in Canada to use this approach on a large-scale project and they’re taking in “a firehose of information.” If they can pass those learnings on to others, they know that more leaky, older buildings from the 1950s and 1960s might get retrofits, too.
Susut says she hopes every co-op like Sundance can undertake such a project. The group plans to purchase whatever energy it can’t produce from its newly installed solar panels on site, from a renewable energy company, bringing the whole complex to net zero.
“There’s an excitement and pride that our co-op is at the forefront of this work in Canada. And we’re getting it done.”