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This 17-storey white-brick building is empty, crumbling and needs some work.Alex Bozikovic/The Globe and Mail

At 52, the Ken Soble Tower isn’t doing well. The 17-storey white-brick building in Hamilton, Ont.'s North End is empty, crumbling inside, and leaky: a 1960s building, like many others in Canada, that needs some work.

What’s unusual is that the work is about to happen – and that this public housing site is going to become more beautiful, more accessible, more comfortable and vastly more energy-efficient, hitting the demanding Passive House standard of insulation and lower carbon emissions. All at the same time.

Thanks to $10-million in federal funding announced on Tuesday, this CityHousing Hamilton building will become a poster child for the idea of ”tower renewal,” the renovation and rethinking of modern apartment towers across Canada. It will be home to seniors, with 20 per cent of its apartments renovated to be fully accessible.

The bigger challenge will be repeating this sort of project, over and over again, for thousands of buildings that house millions of people.

The architects Ya’el Santopinto and Graeme Stewart, of the firm ERA Architects, are overseeing the project with builders PCL and engineers Reinbold and Entuitive. It’s groundbreaking, in a technical sense: Hamilton officials are touting it as the first Passive House apartment renovation in North America. The architects, who have been working on midcentury towers for years, see that as appropriate. “This is the first time we’re doing this sort of project in our country,” says Stewart. “It’s really a time to look at the best ways to solve the problem.”

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The North End Urban Renewal Plan.Margaret Rockwell/Handout

Which include the Passive House standard. “If you build or renovate with a high-performance envelope – that means a lot of insulation, triple-glazed windows, that kind of thing – it takes less energy to heat and cool,” Santopinto explains. “In this building, each unit is going to be heated and cooled with the energy it takes to run three light bulbs.”

The existing building used a lot more energy than that. It was built to the standards of the era: single-glazed windows, exterior walls of brick over concrete and “very low energy efficiency,” as Santopinto told me with a smile. On a recent tour of the building, which is now vacant, she showed me its failings and also its potential.

To start with, it sits weirdly in the city: the tallest thing in the neighbourhood, adjacent to two-storey houses in what was a working-class neighbourhood. In 1963, the North End was seen as “blighted,” and the city tore down more than 500 buildings. The results were a handful of new buildings, including new offices for Hamilton’s Port Authority and, next door, the Soble tower.

It also sits awkwardly on its site, a typical problem for both private and public apartment buildings in 1960s Canada. There is lots of parking, and the building’s private green space is an afterthought. The architecture is fine, if a bit odd. Designed by the young Toronto architect Harry B. Kohl, the building combines a skinny tower with a smaller walk-up slab. They’re wrapped in glazed white brick, which Toronto architects borrowed from upscale New York apartment houses of the time. But as I saw on a recent tour with Santopinto, the results here were unglamorous: small units, with cheap fixtures and finishes, that have worn hard over the years.

On the other hand, “The building has a tremendous amount of potential,” Santopinto said. She’s right, and the architects will bring it out. The skinny building enjoys lots of daylight on all sides. The new windows will be, in many cases, larger than the current ones. A top-floor laundry room, which has some of the best views in the city (“but almost no windows,” Santopinto laughed) will be converted into a lounge for residents. The laundry will move to the main floor, joining a new shared kitchen and rebuilt patio and grounds.

The bulk of the project, however, is technical. CityHousing Hamilton will replace its skin and most of its mechanical systems. The exterior balconies will be removed and replaced with Juliet balconies, while the current windows will be swapped with German-made, triple-glazed replacements that open, letting occupants cool their homes with cross-breezes. This “natural ventilation” and ceiling fans are the main means of cooling the building. The old radiators in each unit, meanwhile, will be scrap. Temperatures will be much more steady; cooler in the summer, warmer in winter.

Santopinto, Stewart and their colleagues have been thinking about tower renewal for a decade, and they identify many challenges with this sort of project, beginning with safety. Think of Grenfell Tower in London, the social-housing building that in 2017 became quite literally a death trap. There, recently applied facade panels contained insulation that could and did catch fire.

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Many of the agency’s units were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In Hamilton, this will not be an issue. The architects are specifying fireproof mineral wool insulation, which is not the cheapest alternative but also provides good thermal performance. CityHousing Hamilton is thinking hard about such choices. About half of the agency’s 7,000 units were built in the late 1960s and early 1970s, says Sean Botham, senior development project manager with CHH. The Soble Tower project shows “it is possible to systematically approach” this sort of retrofit, of a whole building, for energy efficiency and accessibility, “and create exemplary buildings.”

However, “it is not possible,” he adds, "without significant investment from government.”

This week’s announcement solved that. The money committed through the National Housing Strategy is allowing the Soble project to move ahead; about one-third is through Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s Affordable Housing Innovation Fund.

“Right now, for the first time in a generation,” Stewart says, “it’s possible for public housing to innovate.” Indeed the country’s biggest landlord, the city-owned Toronto Community Housing Corp., was just awarded $1-billion over a decade for badly needed retrofits of its buildings. This money needs to be well spent. And high-quality, high efficiency construction is not cheap. “But it makes sense for public housing agencies,” Stewart explains, “because they reinvest in their properties in the long term.”

The private sector “will move more slowly,” Stewart acknowledges. “Until regulations and standards catch up, the market is going to lag.” And given that thousands of apartment buildings like this one are privately owned, that’s a problem. A fire in Toronto last summer that left 1,500 people homeless – in another white-brick, late-60s apartment tower – showed how much work there still is to do. Such refits will affect the lives of many people, and they should be done, like the Soble tower project, with an eye on the next 50 years.

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