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Business case for deep retrofits developing in BC

Updated: Jul 7


The Pembina Institute has been engaged in an exceptional initiative in partnership with the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, BC Housing, the City of Vancouver, and Metro Vancouver Housing to help scale up deep retrofits in British Columbia. The Reframed Initiative brings together the construction industry, building owners, financiers, and policy makers to share knowledge on best practices to advance the business case of deep retrofits.

I sat down with Trevor Billy, a senior analyst at the Pembina Institute working on their Buildings team, to learn more about this initiative.

“This comes down to the broad climate policy and how many of our existing buildings are, frankly, still going to be here in 2050. So we have to deal with them. The Reframed [Initiative] came about because, in our minds, new buildings [in BC] are being covered by increasingly better Step Codes, so everything that’s new after a period of time will be low emitting, they’ll be net-zero, or close to it. They’re going to meet the standard. It’s the existing buildings [...] that nobody else is tackling. So it was definitely an evolution from we should do a few of them to we should do a lot of them towards well, nobody’s actually dealing with all of them and someone has to do that.”

A big part of Pembina’s work on the subject, has been to raise the bar and impress upon the public, government, and industry, the scale at which retrofits must be completed. Billy tells me, “we’re really doing these [projects] one or two at a time and we need to do them by the thousands. If we’re actually talking about units, it’s in the range of half a million a year. And if you added them all up, we’re probably doing hundreds across Canada [...] We need to stop treating these as one-offs, as photo opportunities, as specialized niche builds because we now know how to do them and now is the time to really scale up and benefit from doing [deep retrofits].”

This work is ambitious and certainly essential due to the constraints of climate change, but Billy assures me that this work is doable: “this is existing technology: it’s window, it’s door, it’s better insulation, it’s a new roof, it’s heat pumps (where appropriate). [It’s not about doing] anything that anyone in the trades won’t know exactly [...] but instead of doing them one at a time, you really have to do the whole envelope, the whole package all together.”

The reason we’re not doing retrofits at this scale and in this comprehensive way (i.e., addresses outstanding maintenance issues, durability, seismic resiliency, etc.,) as Billy tells me, is that it is not cost effective yet, but that is what the Reframed Initiative is trying to better understand. The Pembina Institute is working to present that there is a business case for holistic retrofits and large-scale deep retrofit campaigns. Often, when looking at the business case for deep retrofits, we’re really just looking at energy savings– which is why Billy and The Pembina Institute are intentional to call them “deep retrofits” instead of “deep energy retrofits.” If looking exclusively at energy when presenting the business case for retrofits, as Billy tells me, “a deep retrofit will pay for 75% of the cost just on energy savings,” but he says that the 25% gap is not insurmountable and that is what they have being trying to show through their Reframed Lab.

Pembina and the aforementioned stakeholders are working “to transform how we retrofit multi-unit residential buildings to eliminate climate pollution, reduce energy waste, improve health and safety, and increase resilience to extreme weather events.” The Reframed Lab specifically has been a six-month project “to design deep retrofit solutions for low-rise residential buildings in BC’s Lower Mainland, Capital Regional District, and Southern Interior.” This has involved engineering firms collaborating to design comprehensive retrofit packages for social house units. The work has focused on six social housing MURBs: Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation’s (MVHC) Le Chateau in Coquitlam, MVHC’s Crown Manor in New Westminster, MVHC’s Manor House in North Vancouver, Tikva Housing Society’s Dany Guincher Place in Vancouver, ASK Wellness Society’s Crossroads Inn in Kamloops, and Pacifica Housing’s Medewiwin in Victoria. Within these six MURBs, engineering firms were organized into six design teams to collaborate and to produce six possible design pathways/templates, and then report on various metrics through a standardized methodology.

Billy and the Pembina Institute are making the case that conducting comprehensive and holistic retrofits covers the 25% gap–but you must think beyond energy savings. Living in a newer, more efficient home benefits the health and satisfaction of tenants (which can lead to longer tenancies), it reduces the healthcare costs of tenants–particularly if we consider the health impacts of the heat dome–the upgrades associated with the retrofits can increase seismic resilience, and address outstanding maintenance issues (i.e., mold) then lowers ongoing upkeep costs. A deep retrofit is about making buildings more durable, resilient, healthier, and comfortable, and the value of that needs to be captured. There is a business case for conducting retrofits in a more comprehensive manner, we just need to think beyond energy savings to understand all of the benefits.

Because the units are social housing units and not disrupting tenants is a core value of the initiative, the retrofit projects have focused on envelope upgrades. When they do need to go into the units, Billy highlights they are exploring new innovations called “all-in-one packaged units.” These innovations go around the traditional and disruptive process of dealing with ducts and piping by focusing on these packages on heating and cooling through heat pumps, heat recovering, and ventilation, which can be accomplished “in under a day for each one.”

Now, while the engineering firms involved are technically competitors, through the Reframed Lab, the Pembina Institute has been able to facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration that is advancing the residential retrofit sector. Billy continues to describe how the relationship between these competitors has been incredibly friendly as they are all working towards common and mutually beneficial goals.

“One of the real advantages of [deep retrofits] is how widespread it is. For instance, you invest in a subway, it helps a narrow part of one province but it’s at a high cost. But these buildings exist right across Canada: in urban areas, in rural areas, in remote areas. So the job creation and the benefits are really widespread and that’s what we think is the real advantage.”

Billy and the Pembina Institute are gearing up for a workshop intended to share their lessons to external audiences. To stay in the loop and hear more specifics on the retrofit designs in these projects, check out the following link.

Articles on the PBC website reflect the views of the author and not necessarily those of PBC.

Raidin Blue is a summer technical writer for PBC. He earned his MES at York University and B.Sc.Hon. from the University of Saskatchewan.

Cover image: Photo of Crown Manor, used with permission from Trevor Billy.