Building a Sustainable Condo Today Involves Designing for the Future

Plus focusing on resilience, health, and wellness.

An exterior shot of a condo building in Niagara
This is how I thought you did it 25 years ago. Times have changed.

Lloyd Alter

A graduate of my Sustainable Design course at Toronto Metropolitan University contacted me recently for advice. She is working for a real estate developer in the Niagara region of Ontario, about 30 miles west of the falls, building condominium apartments and townhouses. She asked me to review her proposal for the company's sustainability initiative.

My student—I will call her Alice—was full of good ideas and suggestions, starting with a bike-share program. These buildings are in what used to be small towns but are now pretty sprawly and everyone has two cars. A bike-share program might go a long way toward removing the need for one of the cars and might even reduce the parking count since concrete parking garages are turning into concrete icebergs.

She also called for restorative design: renewable all-electric energy, including solar and wind power, and a focus on water. Given we are 30 miles from the biggest source of renewable energy on the continent and a short walk from the biggest source of fresh water in the world, I thought one might weigh these options a little differently. Alice also suggested going for LEED certification.

Having built a few condos that I thought were sustainable as a real estate developer in a previous life—and having thought about this issue earlier this year after being asked how to build a "green" building now—I thought I would revisit it. Much of the problem is what people say they want and what they will pay money for are often two different things. Almost everybody wants to stop climate change, but they also really want a quartzite countertop. Insulation isn't sexy, but dramatic floor-to-ceiling glass is.

So the problem is to devise a set of features that are good at reducing carbon emissions but also can be seen as desirable features that directly improve the lives of the purchaser and the value of the property. Here are some of the recommendations I would make:

Go Passive House

I actually wrote a brochure about this for Passivehouse Canada, "A Developers Guide to Passive House Buildings" (download here), in which I listed the benefits for buyers and the marketing pitch, including greater comfort, a healthier environment, a quiet setting, simplicity of operation, resilience, and a higher market value.

I noted the developer benefited in many ways, concluding, "[It is] a focus on better building techniques and materials, not expensive green gizmos. It’s not about adding 'green bling' but about keeping it simple. If a net zero building is desired, fewer solar panels are required; instead you invest in building better to reduce demand. In the end this costs less and is easier to maintain and manage."

Alice had suggested going with ground source heat pumps and mentioned controlling solar gain with shaded and properly-sized windows. Going Passive House might significantly reduce the size and cost of the heat pump system and outweigh the benefits of adding rooftop solar.

In the COVID era, the benefits of the Passive House ventilation systems are even more attractive, with fresh filtered air being delivered to each unit. If purchasers thought about how they get their fresh air in a conventional building, pushed through the carpet under the door after being pumped into the common corridor, they would think twice about apartment living—it's disgusting.

Thermally broken balcony
Schott Thermally broken balcony system.

Lloyd Alter

The biggest expense in going Passive House might be the balconies; they all have to be thermally broken, separated from the building itself. There is a great new resource from Perkins & Will about this, showing all the options, titled "Thermally Broken Balconies: Alternative Strategies for Low Carbon Buildings."

Focus on Health and Wellness

Alice has a great head start with a large community garden. Other measures suggested in the Fitwel Standard or the Well Standard that look at exercise, health, water quality, and material selection will all make purchasers feel better about the place.

Consider Resilience

Resilience is going to become more front of mind. We have noted that Passive House designs act as thermal batteries, keeping the heat in or out for days and even weeks when the power goes out. But there are other measures that might be taken to improve resilience. Perhaps there should be enough rooftop solar and batteries to keep the emergency lights and alarms working, and instead of condo party rooms, there should be a community cooler or root cellar for when the fridges go out.

Design for the Future

It is getting warmer in the Niagara region, faster than expected, according to Brock University research. Systems should be designed for significant warming over the life of the building; there is a reason that this is wine country. As architect Mike Eliason notes in this post on designing for climate change, we should design with lots of shading in mind.

Cars will all be electric and likely will be fewer in number; ensure there can be charging points installed as required and that the garage is adaptable. That community garden may be more valuable than you think; make sure that there is sufficient storage for what it produces, perhaps by converting part of the parking garage.

intelligent City section

Intelligent City

Fundamental design changes should be considered in future buildings. Trends I see are more exterior single-loaded corridors to improve ventilation and reduce the need for shared enclosed spaces where airborne contaminants can linger, and replacing concrete construction with mass timber to reduce upfront carbon emissions of construction. Architect Oliver Lang and his Intelligent City plans for Vancouver are a great demonstration of this.

Another consideration might be to limit the height of these buildings to six or eight stories maximum so that when the power goes out, the stairs are not such a schlep and the water can get up to apartments without the need of supplementary pumps. Even being 30 miles from all that Niagara power won't guarantee it will always be available for every user.

In the end, I believe people will pay for comfort, security, low operating costs, and the future-proofing of their investment. I do find writing less scary than building, but if I was still in the game, this is what I would do.