Pandemic effect: Housing retrofits

Rendering of back garden, Ken Soble Tower retrofit. ERA is retrofitting the Hamilton tower to meet Passive House standards. Image courtesy ERA

TEXT Ya’el Santopinto and Graeme Stewart, ERA Architects / The Tower Renewal Partnership

As Canada sets out on the path toward COVID-19 recovery, retrofits of affordable tower apartments should be at the top of the stimulus priority list. Maintaining and enhancing towers improves health outcomes, housing security and climate resilience—all while accelerating retrofit market growth and providing green jobs.

Canada’s affordable apartment towers are the backbone of its purpose-built rental housing system, representing more than half of all high-rise units in the nation. Legacies of the post-war apartment housing boom of the 1960s and 70s, many of these buildings are now a half-century old and in need of critical repair. Months of sheltering in place due to COVID-19 have underscored the inequities of the housing system, and the acute challenges in upgrading this stock are more visible than ever.

ERA Architects is one of the founders of a research collaborative—the Tower Renewal Partnership—that seeks to transform aging apartment housing into healthy homes for the 21st century. When it was conceived over a decade ago, the initiative was motivated by the social impact of community investments and the environmental impact of GHG emissions reduction. That focus gradually shifted toward a healthy-housing-first approach, as we began to see more homes with inadequate fresh air supply, mould growth and severe overheating risk. Now, in the era of COVID-19, public interest has moved squarely to a health-first focus. 

The conditions for health-first housing retrofit are quickly coming into place: we are now watching a first set of deep retrofit projects emerge across the country, thanks to federal leadership through the landmark National Housing Strategy and complementary provincial and territorial programs which support emissions reduction targets. Last year, Toronto Community Housing secured $1.3 billion in these funds for deep energy retrofits. The Tower Renewal Partnership supports broader renewal through research and policy, from green finance models to technical best-practice guidelines.

ERA Architects is heading up several retrofits of postwar apartment towers. Our Passive House-standard retrofit of a 1967 affordable seniors’ building is resulting in resilient, net-zero-ready housing. When completed next year, the Ken Soble Tower will include modernized ventilation with direct in-unit fresh air supply, cooling designed to serve the building in the hotter climate predicted for 2050, an ultra-high performance envelope with triple-glazed windows and 10 inches of mineral wool insulation, interior surface temperatures warm enough to protect against condensation, heat recovery for air and domestic hot water, and floorplans reconceived for aging-in-place and community cohesion. 

An overview of the Ken Soble Tower transformation strategies. Image courtesy ERA Architects

When we collaborated with CityHousing Hamilton to develop a funding pitch for the Ken Soble Tower, the project’s primary innovation was a 94 percent carbon emissions reduction target. Now, seen through the lens of a global pandemic, the building is innovative for its fresh air delivery, thermal comfort, and resilient back-up systems. Energy efficiency has become a secondary—though significant—co-benefit of health-centred performance.

While the Ken Soble Tower is currently empty, much of the housing stock that needs upgrading is fully occupied. We have been working with local and international partners—including resident groups, construction associations, housing providers, and architects—to develop a best-practice guide to retrofits with residents in place. Scaling up such resident-first approaches will involve creativity from architects and contractors, including supply chain improvements and methodological innovations. 

The pandemic has added yet more reasons why housing renewal at scale, nation-wide, is urgently needed. It’s time to get started.


This article is part of our Pandemic Effect series. Our complete list of experts in this series includes:

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