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How do we get Tower Renewal right?

Toolkit in development is first of its kind to prioritize tenants 

apartment tower against blue sky

Published on November 12, 2019

You’ve likely seen them dotted across the city skylines across Canada - clusters of apartment tower buildings that were built shortly after the Second World War. These apartment towers are a holdover from an era past, spacious units built intentionally for rental by families. These days, most rental demand is being met through the secondary rental market, in condos that rarely boast three bedrooms and are largely unaffordable. These mid-century apartment towers comprise a core of Canada’s affordable housing, providing homes for more than 800,000 families. They’re an important part of our housing ecosystem.

Yet decades after their initial construction, many of these apartment towers produce high levels of GHG emissions and are falling into disrepair. As part of the National Housing Strategy, the federal government has earmarked a Repair and Renewal investment fund for 240,000 of these units to address the housing affordability crisis.

‘Tower Renewal’ is the process of retrofitting these aging apartment towers to transform them into vibrant and socially inclusive communities. This process of transformation will also reduce carbon emissions and transition these buildings to adhere to standards of comfort, health, and safety for residents.

However, retrofit construction projects can be highly disruptive for the residents who occupy the units. This poses unique barriers to carrying out the necessary construction work, which in turn can inflate costs and increase perceived risks for builders, contractors and owners. Residents and building owners alike may hold reservations about initiating retrofit construction projects, contributing to that fact that, Canada has fallen behind many other countries in executing these deep retrofits.

Given this unique context, it is imperative to get Tower Renewal right. How do we do that?

As part of a new Solutions Lab, Evergreen has joined in a consultant capacity alongside MaRS and The Natural Step for an exciting new research project as part of the Tower Renewal Partnership (TRP). The NHS Solutions Lab is led by the Centre for Urban Growth + Renewal (CUGR) and several partner organizations. This new working group brings together a number of stakeholders, advisors and experts to create a detailed toolkit for the way forward in building a strong retrofit industry in Canada.

In earlier iterations, the TRP has scored some major wins, namely a zoning change for Residential Apartment Commercial (RAC) zones in Toronto, which allows for greater flexibility and incentivizes retrofitting. This RAC zoning change is the first step in fostering increased social inclusion and economic viability for these neighbourhoods.

What makes this Solutions Lab different?

This TRP is the first project of its kind to put minimal tenant disruption front and centre of the roadmap. The TRP will be producing a Tower Renewal Toolkit including a Final Report, Roadmap, Field Guide, Webinars and Training module development as a resource for builders to execute retrofits with minimal tenant disruption.

One of the most difficult parts of previous retrofit construction projects is that they have a high likelihood of being disruptive and stressful for tenants who reside in those units. Some of these units are home to residents who may face particular vulnerabilities, and retrofit construction projects may create confusion or insecurity. Without the full cooperation and participation of tenants, the retrofit process can face serious barriers and risks that increase financial costs.  

The Lab has conducted extensive case study research and consultation with building owners, the construction industry and tenants with lived experience of a retrofit construction project to generate best practices for moving forward. Their early findings are promising for both tenants and builders who will be involved. Both the case studies and consultations indicated that a key priority for success is to ensure off-site prefabrication of materials. That way, most of the construction can be conducted offsite and any interior unit work can happen over the course of hours, not days. Another crucial component is to work with builders to provide a tenant liaison, who is the point person for tenants so that they can be aware of work plans and address any issues as they arise.

Given all this promising information, the Lab is now entering its fourth phase of implementation. The Toolkit with the Final Report, Roadmap, Field Guide, Webinar and Training Modules are solutions focused to accelerate action. With these valuable resources at hand, future Tower Renewal projects can be done right. The Toolkit should be completed and circulated by Spring 2020!