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Humber College’s Centre for Justice Leadership most recently was a car dealership.Humber College

Built just after the Second World War, the Toronto Now House was one of thousands of small homes thrown up to address a postwar housing shortage. Energy was cheap then. Buildings had little insulation and single-pane windows. Energy efficiency was pathetic by today's standards.

A few years ago, the Toronto architectural firm Work Worth Doing renovated the house, adding insulation and rooftop solar panels, replacing windows and installing a new high-efficiency furnace. The home's energy use dropped by about 70 per cent.

The home was the 2010 winner in the small residential category of the Zerofootprint Re-Skinning Awards, a competition started by Ron Dembo, founder and chief executive of the Toronto clean-tech software and services firm Zerofootprint. The worldwide competition has helped focus attention on efforts to make older buildings more energy efficient – and better looking – by recreating their outer shells and other components.

It's also not limited to houses, however. The overall winner in the 2010 awards was a former San Francisco industrial building that Aidlin Darling Architects converted into a restaurant and office space. Perforated metal panels were placed over new windows to control solar heat. The building received gold-level Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification.

In Syracuse, N.Y., King + King Architects converted an uninsulated furniture showroom, formerly heated with space heaters, into architectural offices and made it use 45 per cent less energy than an average building its size. That project was a finalist in the 2011 awards.

Humber College's Centre for Justice Leadership was also a finalist, in the institutional category. One of a handful of buildings the college has bought and adapted to new purposes in co-operation with Toronto-based Gow Hastings Architects, it had most recently been a car dealership.

The former showroom became classrooms, while service bays were turned into forensics labs and offices, says Philip Hastings, principal at Gow Hastings.

The showroom had large windows that were designed more to show off cars than to conserve heat. Gow Hastings covered the windows on the south and west sides with perforated aluminum panels on which ivy grows. The ivy is thicker in the summer, blocking some sunlight to reduce the need for cooling.

Though these changes conserve energy, Mr. Hastings says the biggest environmental benefit came simply from reusing the old building rather than knocking it down and starting over.

"The re-skinning I think makes it valuable and new again," he says.

Re-skinning is beginning to catch on, Dr. Dembo says, but he is somewhat disappointed that more isn't happening in Canada.

A key obstacle is cost, coupled with the fact that in large buildings a landlord usually bears the cost while the benefits of the resulting energy savings go to the tenants. "Some of these things involve a lot of capital," Dr. Dembo says, "and the financial markets aren't set up to make that easy."

He suggests two ways to encourage more re-skinning. First, introduce regulations to require more energy-efficient buildings. Second, offer financing programs in which government puts up the upfront cost of the re-skinning and gets its money back through an annual fee that, like a property tax, is attached to the building so that it becomes the new owner's responsibility if the building is sold.

Such a scheme would mean minimal risk for governments, Dr. Dembo says, since building owners rarely default on property taxes because of the risk of losing the property if they do.

Sometimes called Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs, a few such initiatives exist in the United States. The City of Vancouver has a loan program to help homeowners make energy-efficiency improvements, but doesn't lump repayments into property tax bills.

A change of attitude about old buildings could also help. Instead of knocking down 50-year-old buildings and building new, says Mr. Hastings, "you take advantage of what you have."

Dr. Dembo says he launched the awards partly to make the point that buildings can be upgraded. "We assume that the exterior, the skin, is permanent," he says. "Why should we build buildings that way?"