Skip to main content

Ted Kesik does not live in a glass tower near the Rogers Centre.

"As a building scientist, I look at buildings the way a doctor looks at a body: I say 'Ah, it may look sexy but boy, that's not very healthy.

"I don't know if I'd want to be that thin."

It's a good bet the University of Toronto professor would also feel justified throwing stones at anyone who'd choose a "thin," glass-walled, energy-inefficient building, since he's spent the past decade working on how to transform mid-20th century energy-hogs into 21st-century energy-sipping hamsters via over-cladding (or "re-skinning") and window replacement.

This research, gathered in the 2009 tome Tower Renewal Guidelines (Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design), may not be light Sunday reading, but it's become required reading at city hall, especially in the Tower Renewal Office. Let us hope condominium boards and private owners of 1950s-1970s buildings will do likewise when they see energy costs continue to rise and shorter life spans on "Band-Aid" solutions. With tower renewal, says Prof. Kesik, older buildings "will beat the pants off the greenest high-rise towers that we're building today; so imagine taking a 1968 Camaro and having it outperform, in fuel efficiency, a 2012 car."

Grenadier Gardens, a two-building condominium complex on Southport St. near High Park's Grenadier Pond, wants to be that Camaro.

Designed in 1971 by Estonian-born architect Uno Prii and built in 1972, the 15– and 17-storey towers might be the first major privately owned complex undergoing tower renewal in the GTA, say both Prof. Kesik and Brian Shedden of GRG Building Consultants. They're also perfect candidates: From 2004 to 2010, almost $311,000 was spent on concrete and balcony repairs alone according to condo board member Doug Burn; factor in the deteriorating brick and energy loss/water penetration through original, single-pane windows and it was time to rip off the Band-Aids for a more holistic approach.

So, in July, 2010, after Grenadier Gardens' legal counsel determined the corporation's responsibility extended to balcony windows and doors (before, it was thought owners were responsible for these elements, which would have made full tower renewal a logistical nightmare), an earlier plan to tackle exterior wall remediation only – which would have come in at a little more than $1-million – was rejected in favour of GRG's comprehensive plan, which will cost $5.9-million over three years.

A lot of money. But the corporation had kept a healthy reserve fund over the years, so the cost to each of the 332 unit owners amounts to an average of $33 added to their monthly maintenance fees each year until the project wraps in 2014. So, for less than the price of a cup of coffee a day, owners will go from living in a "naked" building (zero insulation) to one that's clothed in the latest technology: a Styrofoam "jacket" with stucco-like material over top, and top-rated, double-pane windows and doors.

And while it may look like the same stuff used to pack stereo equipment, the three-inch thick, high-density polystyrene has built-in drainage tracks – "For years they thought 'We'll keep the water out,' but you can't, so let's manage it," explains GRG project manager Mr. Shedden – and the cementitious, stucco-like product (known as EIFS: "External Insulation and Finish System") is a two-part system: the first layer contains polymers that super-bond to the polystyrene, and the final coat can be tinted to any colour; while Grenadier Gardens has selected muted earth tones, other, more daring boards can go for checker-boarding or bold stripes. "And if you want to change that colour scheme down the road, that's easy to do," he adds. These products, of course, are applied only after concrete and masonry have been completely repaired. Currently, the east wall of both buildings is undergoing this transformation.

To test the airtight and water-penetration-proof Alumicor balcony windows and doors, an "in situ" mock-up was installed on a ground floor suite. "And it instantly failed," says Mr. Shedden, who adds that after extensive sleuthing, incorrectly mitred corners were discovered (newly engineered units are on the way).

When complete, Prof. Kesik estimates the combined annual $330,000 natural gas bill will decrease by 40 to 50 per cent. Better yet, the 40-year-old buildings' lives will extended into the 2060s: "For sure we've got two generations that are going to live in this place and they're going to be okay – that's a remarkable story!" That's because older buildings, he adds, are already so "tough, rugged and robust" they handle the recladding process with ease; in fact, residents of Grenadier Gardens have not been asked to move out during construction.

"That's not what's going to happen to all those wonderful buildings down at Concord Place," snarls Prof. Kesik, projecting 10 years into the future when he estimates their glass walls will fail prematurely. "They're going to have to evacuate." So why do young people line up to purchase there despite the fact that energy performance is usually as bad as a 1960s or 70s building before tower renewal? It's either the media portraying them as "sexy" or, more likely, that buyers just aren't aware of their failings: "No industry that I know of provides so little factual information to the consumers of its product; you look at every other industry and they have to convey technological advances or they don't get sales." As an example, he points to the television industry, which first educated the public on "refresh rates," "HDMI ports" and "aspect ratios" before introducing a more expensive product.

Until then, Prof. Kesik will continue to speak the truth in the University of Toronto's lecture halls, and Mr. Shedden will continue to renew buildings, one at a time. However, with at least 1,500 older towers in the GTA and a whole new crop come 2025, they'd better pick up the pace.