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The Presbyterian Church in Canada struck a deal with the Right At Home Housing Society that replaced an aging building with sustainable housing for sixteen families

A new net-zero townhouse development on the site of Westmount Presbyterian Church in North Glenora, west Edmonton.

Sixteen families from countries including Syria and Somalia have moved into a net-zero townhouse development on the site of Westmount Presbyterian Church in North Glenora, west Edmonton.

The Presbyterian Church in Canada, which owns the site, agreed to lease the acre of land to Right at Home Housing Society, for a nominal fee. In return, the affordable housing agency built a smaller church for the congregation, including a community centre and daycare facility, alongside the 16-unit rental townhouse development, which it will manage.

"The church approached us because they had a 1950s cinder block building that needed seven furnaces to keep it warm and had a leaking roof. Their congregation had declined somewhat and they couldn't afford to heat it anymore," says Right at Home executive director Cam McDonald. "At the same time, they had become aware of the acute need for housing for large immigrant families in Edmonton. Between us, we came up with a solution for the site, which addressed both their failing building and the social justice work they're passionate about."

The solution was to downsize the church and use the remainder of the site for three-to-five bedroom affordable housing units for larger families, who would be supported by partnering social service agencies.

In return for the land, the housing agency built a new, smaller church for the Westmount Presbyterian congregation.

It's anticipated that the development will add about 80 children to Coronation Elementary School, which was considered for closing in 2014 because of to falling enrolment. The boost in numbers will mean the daycare provider currently operating in the school will move into the church, freeing up classroom space. English as a second language courses are planned to help the community's newcomers adapt to life in Canada.

Mr. McDonald says the development will be "life changing" for residents, which includes a family of refugees from Myanmar, who had previously been housed in the church manse.

"Edmonton has a very serious shortage of affordable housing options for large families," he says. "When you have family units of eight or nine people living in a two-bedroom house, the children don't get the opportunity to do well in school and we know they don't thrive. With these homes having up to five bedrooms and being right across the street from the school, it gives these families the best chance possible."

Additionally, the project is throught to be the largest net-zero-energy multifamily development in Canada.

"Building energy efficient buildings makes sense for non-profits all over North America," says Peter Amerongen, a partner at Habitat Studio, the firm that designed and built the development. "Right at Home knows that it's going to own it's buildings forever. So they know it's better to build them to have very low operating costs, because it's easier to find capital dollars than operating money."

Habitat Studio specializes in net-zero and ultra-low-energy houses, having built more than 70 in Edmonton to date. Mr. Amerongen believes the completion of the townhouse development in North Glenora means the firm has now completed more net zero homes than any other builder in Edmonton and possibly also Canada.

"Initially, we planned to build the most energy efficient building we could and one that could be converted to net-zero in the future," he explains. "But, in the end, Right at Home did some fundraising and found the dollars we needed to add the photovoltaics and change the mechanical system to get it to net-zero."

The builder claims the cost premium to make the townhouses net-zero was around 5 per cent.

Mr. Amerongen says the townhouse development cost $4.5-million to build while the church and the daycare cost $1.5-million. He estimates the additional cost to make the original design net zero was in the region of 5 per cent.

"There are no furnaces and no gas-line to the entire site. All of the heat and most of the hot water is provided by geothermal and all of the electricity is provided by solar panels on the roof. We have R40 walls, high quality windows, it's thermal bridge free, it has insulation under the slab and R80 in the attic. Essentially, it's twice as energy efficient as a typical code built building," he explains.

"We figured out an allowance for lighting and appliance loads, based on averages for Canadian families living in multifamily housing, and weve added that to the amount we need to run the geothermal system and the residual hot water," he says. "We figure we need somewhere around 128,000 kilowatt hours per year and we have a system that's designed to produce around 134,000, so there's a little bit of a cushion.

"Most of that will be generated in spring, summer and fall when the excess will go to the grid. Then in winter, when we're not producing enough, we'll draw back out of the grid.

Savings will be passed on to residents through Right at Home's utilities-included housing charge; Mr. Amerongen estimates the net utilities over the year will be "next to nothing." He's eager to use this as an opportunity to educate the families, and the community as a whole, about sustainable living.

"The development is going to welcome residents from many different countries and cultures and we don't know what their relationship to energy conservation has been, so we'll be opening a dialogue about that and doing some advocacy and education to encourage them to live in a conservative, energy efficient way," he says. "Even though our appliances are getting better, people's average energy use is not improving, and I'm keen that we use this as a way to start a conversation about responsible energy consumption."

So far, he says, the community has welcomed the development, and it's residents, with open arms.

"This is a 1950s neighbourhood that's been gentrifying for some time now, there's lots of renovation and infill happening, property values are going up and it's a nice, vibrant neighbourhood," he says. "When we went for rezoning, we had the community league chair and the planning chair for the community speak so passionately in favour of the project, it was overwhelming. It's incredible to see a neighbourhood in Edmonton like this that's welcoming diversity and densification."

Mr. McDonald agrees it's an example to other neighbourhoods and says he's excited by the possibilities it could open up for future development sites.

"We're currently exploring several other projects with faith-based organizations, which are potentially interesting in leveraging their land. That interest has arisen from this project and I think that interest will continue to increase. There's real potential here, not just in Edmonton but throughout Alberta and across Canada."

The ribbon cutting for the development, officially welcoming residents to their new neighbourhood, will take place on Dec. 14.

Editor's note: The original print and online versions of this story misidentified The Presbyterian Church in Canada. This online version has been corrected.