Retrofit the World

James at Earthday

As you know, I’m running for School Trustee in BC School District 42. The election is coming up on Saturday and always the question is, “what is the best use of what little time I have left.” You can help by voting your advice. What should I do right now?

Visiting Social Chick Vicki McLeod
Visiting Social Chick Vicki McLeod
  1. engage in conversation on Facebook groups?
  2. knock on doors and hand out flyers?
  3. hand out flyers at supermarkets or train stations?
  4. attend meet-and-greet events?
  5. spend time with my kids but make sure I get cute photos to post online?
  6. update my trustee website and facebook page?

You may notice that writing a blog post for Hammond Forever House is not on the list, but I’m doing it anyway. That’s how I roll.

This post has been a long time coming. Now that it is here, it is going to be a little rushed. Why? See the list above.

First, the news. Last week at the School Board meeting, staff recommended to the board the hiring of an energy manager on a one-year trial basis. The board voted yes. This follows a conversation thread on Facebook on what Trustee candidates propose to do about the $100 000 per year the School District pays in Carbon Tax because our buildings are inefficient. Well, here is your answer!

You have no idea how pleased I would be to be a school trustee when the process of assessing school buildings for energy-efficiency and making upgrades is happening. Here is why.

By October 17th, 2012, where we left off our story, I was starting to kick up a fuss about how long our Heritage Revitalization Agreement was taking to get into shape to present to City Council. While I was twiddling my thumbs, I investigated what features we could add to the house to make it more sustainable.

I got a quote on a geothermal heat pump, including drilling which came to about $20000. It sounds like a lot, but it would end our dependence on fossil fuels, reduce our bills forever and, with the Livesmart BC grant, which knocked off about $6000 (and considering we are planning to live here long enough to enjoy the energy savings) it would have been worth it. Unfortunately we discovered that we were not eligible for that grant because we had already received one for insulation and sealing in 2008. Suddenly it was not affordable and now the BC Government, bless their hearts, has eliminated Livesmart BC altogether. [The Federal EcoEnergy Grant is long gone and the Conservatives refuse to consider bringing it back, even though it works, creates jobs, diversifies the economy, etc. etc. Don’t get me started.]

I was looking at retaining rainwater to flush our toilets with, making the roof solar-ready, super-insulating the new walls and ceilings, and putting water pipes into the basement slab to deliver warmth and cool to the house.

All of these things have a significant up-front cost, but long-term savings and, of course, drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The reno itself was going to break our bank and I hated the idea of accepting the truth that we couldn’t afford to do the right thing.

Lisa Zosiak, Heritage Planner, had passed us on to another planner, but a few times she passed on some information on sustainable building. On October 17th she sent a quick e-mail that changed my life:

Hi Leanne and James,

Thought this session may be of interest to you.

Lisa Zosiak, Planner, District of Maple Ridge

Free Public Lecture

Lorraine in Maple Ridge
Lorraine in Maple Ridge

The Now House — Retrofitting for Zero Energy

October 24, 7 pm

SFU Harbour Centre, 515 West Hastings Street, Vancouver

Admission is free, but reservations are required. Reserve

A lot of focus has been placed on how to build homes that are increasingly more energy efficient and sustainable. But what about the existing stock of older homes across the country? In 50 years, two-thirds of our housing stock will still be here and housing is responsible for 15% of greenhouse gas emissions.

Join Lorraine Gauthier as she explores the approach behind the Now House® — the retrofit of a 60-year-old post-war house in an established neighbourhood in Toronto and its transformation into a net zero energy home. Just like a typical city house, the Now House® is connected to, and uses energy from, the local utility. However, unlike typical homes, the Now House® produces energy to send to the utility company. On an annual basis, the home produces as much energy as it consumes, resulting in a net zero energy bill.

Based on this success, the The Now House™ project team teamed up with Windsor Essex Community Housing Corporation to bring sustainable thinking and design to five similar wartime houses in Windsor. Come and discover how the Now House® offers a vision and a practical, affordable approach that can be applied to homes across the country.

Featuring panelists Michael Geller, architect, planner, and developer; and Dr. Guido Wimmers, director, Canadian Passive House Institute.

Sponsored by CMHC, Light House Sustainable Building Centre, and SFU Continuing Studies (City Program).

Now House Intro

The First Now House
The First Now House

The room was packed. In the midst of the greening of our consumer culture and its emphasis on new, shiny, energy efficient houses—LEED buildings, Passive Haus, etc.—Lorraine is one of the few voices talking about the huge challenge of retrofitting existing houses. It was exactly what I was looking for.

What foreshadowed my future struggles was the response to one of her questions to the audience.

She had just explained that the first Now House, which had achieved an annual energy bill of net zero as part of a national competition, cost about $80 000 to do. The Windsor 5, five similar houses retrofit in different ways to test the cost-benefit ratio, averaged around $45 000 each. Once they selected which of those five to reproduce en masse, Now House retrofit 95 of the same type in Windsor and each one cost, without solar panels, about $11 000. This was achieved by economies of scale: the trades moved from house to house doing more or less the same thing with the same bulk materials and appliances.

$80K down to $11K is amazing. My jaw was on the floor and I was ready to sign up, but there was nothing to sign up for.

The question Lorraine asked was how many people in the audience of green building enthusiasts would be willing to pay $11 000 to reduce their energy bill and be within reach of net zero? How many hands do you think went up? Most? Nope. Maybe a quarter of us. A quarter.

That moment was an enduring lesson for me. What stopped these people from putting up their hands? Was it simple cash flow problems (I don’t have $10 to buy those $100 boots)? Was it concern that they wouldn’t live in their house long enough to “pay off” the investment (I may suddenly want to sell the house in three years)? What was it?

The root of my ambition to be a School Trustee comes from the undervaluing of long-term thinking in my community. Investing sustainably in a robust education system now will lead to happier, healthier, more productive citizens in ten or twenty years as well as fewer homeless people, drug addictions, crime, and on and on. We know this, yes?

Is it our consumer “newer is better” culture of disposable goods that has rubbed off on our political sensibilities or is the short terms of political office to blame for our panicky need to balance the budget (or at least make the numbers dance so that the budget appears balanced) in two years? I’m all for efficient delivery of services like education but after 10 years of cuts we are clearly cutting into bone now which will be very expensive (not to mention socially disastrous) down the road, even if it looks fiscally responsible now.

Listening to Lorraine react to the few hands that were up, I didn’t understand the depth of the challenge before me. She said, “well that’s part of the problem.”

Now House Project Presentation Poster - Feb.5, 2013.Over the next months I worked on bringing the concept of reducing the costs of retrofits to homeowners through economies of scale. Now House worked on 100 houses in Windsor which had a massive advantage over me: they all had a single owner. The Windsor Essex Housing Corporation owned all 100 and could make decisions unilaterally. Coordinating 100 separate owners of dissimilar houses is going to be a lot harder, but still worth the effort.

I will get into more detail soon, but I want to give shout-outs to key people who helped with this.

To Lorraine Gauthier who arranged to fit in another presentation in Maple Ridge Council Chambers on February 5th, 2013 on her own dime.

To Dave Speers, Neighbourhood Coordinator at the District of Maple Ridge, who made it possible to host that presentation.

To Laura Benson, Manager of Sustainability and Corporate Planning (notice the double title) at the DMR who took the time out of her impossibly busy schedule to attend the meeting and had the inspiration to turn on Council Chamber’s recording equipment for it. That recording is there somewhere thanks to her.

Monte hands out the prize

To Monte Paulsen of Red Door Energy Advisors and Ian Ferguson who joined the expert panel at the meeting. Monte was able to provide a free energy audit as a door prize.

To Lance Jakubec of the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation for his support and the $5000 we needed to take the next step in fleshing out the project.

Finally, To the 46 people who showed up!

You can read a news story about the meeting here.

I carried on in the belief that the chief barriers to everyone retrofitting their older homes was that they did not have the upfront cash to pay for it and that it is very difficult to get good information on how to do it. I was partially right.

The details will have to wait, but let me fast-forward to the reason you have not heard of the community retrofit project for a while.

Last year, after an all day meeting called a design charrette with experts and homeowners including Now House, BC Hydro, Vancity, Fortis BC, Envisions Financial, Ridge Meadows Recycling, Douglas College, the District of Maple Ridge, green builders, energy advisors and homeowners, I set out to formally launch the project under the District’s banner. I had donated a lot of time and energy into the concept and the team felt that now a part-time project manager was needed. At the charrette, we identified the best chance for funding was the BC Hydro Sustainable Communities grant which only municipalities can apply for. The offer at the time was up to $75K but the municipality had to contribute 25% (up to $18.5K) in direct funds or work-in-kind.

On a very frustrating day, in a meeting with district staff I was faced with a grim reality. A municipal program was not going to fly.

Why not? Well, briefly:

  1. Maple Ridge does not have its own electrical utility as does Nelson, BC, for example. Nelson’s EcoSave home retrofit program benefits Nelson. The program I proposed for Maple Ridge would help BC Hydro, not Maple Ridge.
  2. The other group that would benefit in direct financial terms would be only those homeowners who owned a house and were able to take advantage of the program. The project would help Maple Ridge meet its GreenHouse Gas emission reduction targets, but would not pay off directly.
  3. To my mind, with climate change upon us, the above concerns are surmountable. In the long-term, the costs of climate change will make any investment now seem like a no-brainer later. However, think about how many candidates in the current municipal election campaign have, as part of their platform, keeping taxes low. In this political climate, how would City Council react if staff were to recommend spending even as little as, at most, $18.5K on establishing a retrofit project which would bring no financial return to the City but instead help a small number of homeowners and BC Hydro and put only a small dent in the provincial GHG emissions?

In my heartbreaking meeting with staff, they gently pointed out that the best way for Maple Ridge to reduce GHG emissions is to reduce the car traffic commuting in and out of the city daily. In that context, the new business incentive program and the successful downtown density incentive program have an important environmental aspect in addition to their stated goals of reducing municipal costs and residential taxes.

It was another learning moment just like the one at Lorraine’s first presentation.

By that point I had talked with many people who were homeowners and interested in joining the project. However, there were a lot more people who saw greater value in saving $100 on their property taxes than in creating an ongoing program to help residents reduce energy use in their homes. I was going to have to get a lot more people on board with the basic long-term strategy before I could launch or I was never going to get off the ground.

That is why this blog exists.

That is why I am moving ahead with the revitalization, renovation and retrofit of Hammond Forever House, before there is any program in place to help me do it. My hope is that our house can become a community inspiration or, at very least, a conversation starter.

Ah, how much easier it would be if I had authority over a large number of buildings like Now House did. Is anyone so lucky?

School District 42? Hey you’re right!

In fact, the Board has decided to follow a staff recommendation to do almost exactly what I would like to do with houses. The new energy manager will assess the buildings and recommend upgrades. Two schools will be upgraded and, if successful, more will follow.

Of course the first question is,  “how much will it cost the District?” I have already discussed the impossible funding situation we are in. The answer is…nothing! In fact it will reduce costs in just a few years. For a rough outline, read this Maple Ridge News article. According to the article, in addition to the $100 000 in Carbon Tax, the district pays $2.63 million in utility fees. Possible energy savings, after spending something like $4 million district-wide, are estimated to amount to $380 000 per year. That means the investment should pay for itself in just over 10 years, unless you figure in the reduced carbon tax, in which case it would be less.

The challenge will be making sure that the upgrades we do are effective so as to ensure BC Hydro agrees to continue the program and we get that $25K bonus.

The concept of retrofitting these schools is a lot like my home retrofit idea. My home will be the test case just as the first two schools will be. After an example and perhaps some best practices are established, more can be done more cost-effectively.

The biggest difference is motivation. This is the value of a carbon tax. To homeowners, the immediate environmental benefit is mitigated by a high up-front cost. With a carbon tax in place, the financial return is much more immediate. With BC Hydro sharing the cost, this became a very easy decision for the board, I imagine.

Meanwhile, back in the housing sector, governments are getting out of the home efficiency business and how many people do you know are concerned about how much carbon tax they are spending on fossil fuels in their home? I had to check whether we even pay it on our home fuels—and I thought I knew this stuff!

With natural gas, oil and electricity prices among the lowest in the world here in our mild lower mainland climate, it is not easy to justify with traditional economics what we know we must do: eliminate fossil fuel consumption. But do it we must and I am here to help.

If I may end with an appeal to voters, I would like to suggest that at a time like this at least one member of the Board of Trustees should be, among other things, a building retrofit enthusiast.

Vote James Rowley for School Trustee!

Put a sticker on your favourite energy-saving feature!
Put a sticker on your favourite energy-saving feature! Image by Now House

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James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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