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Developers aim for net-zero multifamily homes across Western Canada

Niche Developments is planning to break ground in September on their second development, Belgravia Square, a 70-unit apartment condo in Edmonton’s Belgravia neighbourhood. It will feature ‘solar panels in addition to the geothermal system, so we’ll be supplying power back to the grid to offset the building’s consumptions,’ CEO Peter Purewal says.

Niche Developments

Niche Developments has a lofty goal: to be building affordable, net-zero multifamily developments across Western Canada, as standard, within five years. Chief executive officer Peter Purewal says he believes it's achievable – he's just not sure yet what breakthrough will make it possible.

"The barriers to achieving scalable net-zero developments are heating and ventilating the parkade efficiently – because everyone still expects developments above a certain size to come with underground parking – and generating or storing sufficient solar energy on-site," he says. "When we get solutions to these issues, we'll be net zero."

Mr. Purewal and his business partner John Clarke have been developing with geothermal technology in Alberta for a decade. They founded Niche Developments two years ago to specialize in medium-sized energy-efficient multifamily developments.

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The pair completed their first project at the end of 2016: an 18-unit apartment condo in the Rosscarrock neighbourhood of southwest Calgary called Niche One. It's heated with a closed-loop geothermal system and built with high-insulating precast concrete. They're planning to break ground in September on their second development, called Belgravia Square, a 70-unit apartment condo in Edmonton's Belgravia neighbourhood.

"Belgravia Square will have solar panels in addition to the geothermal system, so we'll be supplying power back to the grid to offset the building's consumption," Mr. Purewal says. "The precast concrete and structural steel construction means the building can handle a lot of weight, so we'll have a perimeter of solar panels around a rooftop garden for residents," he explains.

"Because of the fire code with a building of this size we can't use the solar panels to power the building, nor could we. So we'll be using them to reduce our net energy consumption and costs," he adds. "Maybe one day we'll be able to hook the solar panels up to the building, because battery technology advances. If you don't have it set up now, it's a lot harder and more expensive to do it in the future."

Offsetting the power costs for the building reduces the utility bills and ultimately the condo fees for residents.

"It costs $10 per month to heat a one-bedroom unit in our Calgary development in winter, so utilities will total around $60 per month, depending on usage. Because of the energy savings throughout the building and the low maintenance required for concrete structures, condo fees will be around $180 per month, which is about 30 per cent less than comparable developments," Mr. Purewal says. "Insurance is also 25 per cent less per unit than a wood frame building."

And the numbers look good from an environmental perspective, too.

"Our engineers on the Calgary project tell us we've saved 30 metric tonnes of greenhouse gases per year as a comparative to the old way of building and we've exceeded the new energy code by 30 per cent. If we can do that in Edmonton, on a bigger scale, we'll be very happy."

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In addition to the energy savings, Mr. Purewal says his company is specifically targeting infill sites where they can remove and replace aging, environmentally inefficient single-family homes.

"We're looking for infill sites that are close to transit lines where we can help densify. We see it as a win-win for neighbourhoods because we're abating and replacing these old 1950s buildings which are really not environmentally friendly," he says.

"In Calgary, we took down a triplex and a duplex from 1952 which were full of asbestos. In Edmonton, we took down three 1953 homes which, because of their gas consumption, were probably the three worst polluting properties on the street," he adds.

But for now, heated parkades are Niche Developments' biggest challenge.

"Without the parkade, we could be net zero pretty quick," Mr. Purewal states. "I'd be more willing to go to a power-based heating system if the coal plants in Alberta were shut down, but I don't feel right increasing the power consumption just to burn more coal. Or maybe if we could offset more of that power with the solar array I'd be okay to go to power," he muses. "But right now, we don't have those options."

Meanwhile, north of the river in the community of Westmount, Habitat Studios is currently building what will be Canada's largest net-zero multifamily development to date.

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"It's a 16-unit, four-storey, stacked townhouse development with no parkade, just surface parking," says architect Peter Amerongen, who has been building net-zero single family homes in Canada for 35 years and is considered an expert in net-zero energy design and construction.

"I hypothetically added another two storeys as an exercise just to see if we could make it work but the requirement for lighting and appliance energy is too great, there's not enough roof area to offset that with solar," he says.

Mr. Amerongen believes getting to net zero with larger scale multifamily projects won't happen with one single breakthrough.

"It's likely that we'll chip away at it and eventually get there," he says. "Solar has to become more efficient, for a start. In a well-built building, you need double the energy for lighting and appliances as for heating. As you scale up, there are efficiencies with heating which you don't get with power for appliances and heating. You require more energy but you have the same roof space for solar panels."

"I believe we need to relax the definition of what it means to be net zero," he continues. "By the current definition, solar panels feeding the grid have to be on-site but I'd argue that it doesn't matter where they are. They could be on a warehouse somewhere for example."

Mr. Amerongen agrees parkades are one of the biggest challenges to scaling up net-zero multifamily developments.

"Heating and ventilating a parkade is a big problem. I don't think they need to be as warm as they are and better CO2 sensors would allow developers to stop overventilating. The energy requirements could be reduced a lot, certainly, but not eliminated entirely. Moving towards electric cars will also make a difference."

But for now, Mr. Amerongen says, developers need to at least be planning for a net-zero future, as Niche Developments is, and be ready to embrace the breakthroughs that will make it possible.

"The development industry needs to be carbon neutral by 2050 and that's not far away. Developers should be building net-zero ready today at least. Because, if we're not building net-zero ready, by 2050 those buildings will only be 30 years old and they're going to require a lot of expensive and wasteful upgrading to convert them."

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