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Design

24 Sussex: What a totally sustainable reno should look like

The Canadian prime ministers’ residence, 24 Sussex, sits on the bank of the Ottawa River.

The Canadian prime minister’s residence, 24 Sussex, sits on the bank of the Ottawa River.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The official prime minister's residence, in disrepair for decades, is a money pit (estimated annual energy costs: $70,000) – not to mention a throwback to the days of inefficient design. John Lorinc asks the experts in heritage and sustainable design for their ideas

Unlike the vast majority of families who move into new digs, Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire, almost certainly didn't get a home inspection in anticipation of taking possession of the house that comes with the job.

But the prime-minister-designate, who was sworn in Wednesday, is already receiving all sorts of advice about what to do about 24 Sussex Dr., the stately but long-neglected 1867 mansion that will soon become his home (again).

The environmentally conscious Mr. Trudeau is poised to take a large delegation of premiers to the Paris climate conference, and some observers are urging him not to think of 24 Sussex just as a notorious fixer-upper, but also as something of a showcase for the Liberal government's new-found commitment to sustainability.

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According to Toronto architect Brigitte Shim, 24 Sussex plays a powerful symbolic role. "We can't just see it as a house. It's more than real estate."

So in the spirit of a thousand home-improvement shows, The Globe and Mail canvassed experts in heritage and sustainable design for their ideas. There was no shortage of suggestions – everything from renewable-energy retrofits to fresh ways of thinking about the building's cultural sustainability and its social mandate. And also this: Justin, Sophie, we love your kids, but lose the lawn. There are far greener ways to landscape than with Kentucky bluegrass.

Energy

According to some reports, 24 Sussex's annual energy bill is almost $70,000 – a staggering sum that suggests the building is leaking a prodigious amount of heat and cooling, probably because of poor or non-existent insulation and single-pane windows.

Paul Dowsett, principal architect at Sustainable.to, a Toronto firm that specializes in sustainable renovations of heritage buildings, says the way to sharply lower that cost is to take a 3R (reduce, reuse, recycle) approach to energy retrofits. The firm undertook a similar project on the Daniels Residence, a majestic 9,000-square-foot art-deco home built for former Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe, which, by the time Dowsett got to it, had similar problems, including windows that barely closed. "They weren't doing anything but keeping out the large animals," he recalls.

The Daniels Residence, originally built in the 1930s, underwent a modernization by Toronto firm Sustainable.to.

The Daniels Residence, originally built in the 1930s, underwent a modernization by Toronto firm Sustainable.to.

Paul Dowsett

After completing a detailed computer analysis of how heat, moisture and air move through the walls, Dowsett's firm looks at staged interventions, starting with replacing windows, taking advantage of natural solar heating and cross-ventilation opportunities, and deploying insulation developed by Roxul, a Danish firm with a plant in Milton, Ont., that transforms waste from Hamilton steel mills into a cutting-edge fibre-based mineral insulation product that can also be disposed of easily when a building is eventually torn down.

Architect and Treehugger (an environmental blog) contributor Lloyd Alter, who teaches sustainable design at Ryerson University, points out that some ultrahigh-rated foam-insulation products actually trap moisture in some homes, thus undermining masonry walls.

The goal, before investing in any cutting-edge technology from insulation to heating systems, is to drive down energy costs. "There are always opportunities to use nature's energy in a passive way," Dowsett says. "Only after we reduce energy demand do we start to look at the technology, which is the most expensive aspect."

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The building at 24 Sussex presents a range of opportunities for innovative energy and heating systems, according to Alter and Dowsett, including geothermal technology and the use of water-source heat pumps, which capture and reuse heat energy cast off from other mechanical systems, or even the installation of pumps powered by the Ottawa River.

The Trudeaus could deploy solar panels on flat portions of the roof, although Dowsett notes that there are examples in Europe where designers have created sculptural solar-energy panels that can be installed on the grounds. "That would be a real statement if it was planted in the front yard," he says.

There is a broad consensus that 24 Sussex could be a green showcase from top to bottom. "It could be a real model of how you do a green sustainable renovation of an old building," Alter says. "We have thousands of them that need to be done."

Any restoration should meet the LEED Platinum standard for sustainability, says Marianne McKenna, founding partner of KPMB Architects. "It would be easy to achieve, so why not?"

Heritage

As Shim, a principal with Shim-Sutcliffe Architects, sees it, a new-look 24 Sussex should also be a model of cultural sustainability. "It has been loved and appreciated and it's done its time. We need to look after it and we shouldn't tear it down."

She says any rethink of the residence, situated in a dramatic spot on a cliff overlooking the Ottawa River, should incorporate the gritty, ruggedness of its location, grounds and antecedents. The house, after all, was originally built by Joseph Currier, a Vermont-born lumber baron, so its history is hardwired into Canada's industrial heritage.

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Once the energy, air-circulation and insulation issues are sorted out, the interiors can be opened up to make the house more suitable for a prime minister and visiting dignitaries. According to McKenna, the restoration must begin by carefully documenting the heritage features and then stripping the interior back to the studs while preserving the historic elements, such as mouldings and key pieces of furniture. Rooms can be opened up, with an eye to improving flow.

"It takes a very skillful hand and it should be done properly," she says, describing such a project as "a Rubik's Cube."

Any additions, however, must reflect contemporary architecture, not ersatz heritage style. There are many examples of how old and new are combined in elegant and seamless ways, such as the Daniels Residence, which was retrofitted with sleek glass and steel additions or KPMB's Telus Centre, a modern Toronto concert hall that extends off the back of the Royal Conservatory of Music, a Gothic 1880s brick building that originally operated as a Baptist college.

Shim, whose firm specializes in modernist residential projects, adds that the interior could be positioned as a showcase for Canadian art, contemporary design and furniture, in the way that Jackie Kennedy revamped the White House.

Grounds

The Globe's design team identified other opportunities to incorporate sustainable elements into the rethink of this property – beyond the footprint of the house itself.

Nicholas Discenza, an architectural designer for Sustainable.to, says the Trudeaus could begin by planting native species that do not require watering or pesticides and can withstand both the capital's harsh winters and its arid summers.

Meanwhile, rainwater runoff from the roof can be captured and stored in underground cisterns until it is needed to water plants. But not the lush green lawn, Dowsett adds firmly. "No grass. I would put in a native ground cover."

But as McKenna says, "Put people first. Sustainability should be the undergarment, the foundation. Make it a house that fits" – not just the prime minister and his or her family, but the way all Canadian homes should and could work in the future.

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