Program in Old Ottawa South offering way forward on retrofits in older homes

EnviroCentre, an Ottawa-based organization that supports businesses and homeowners with sustainability efforts, developed a program that looks to demystify energy efficiency upgrades

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For some homeowners in Old Ottawa South, retrofitting their century-old residences has always been appealing. But it can be a hassle, and costly.

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“You always find surprises when you’re ripping open the walls or ripping up all the floors, such as what we did. … It was a complete gutting and rebuilding,” said Matthew Lacompt, who undertook a total renovation of his 100-year-old house in the neighbourhood several years ago.

To help others facing these sorts of surprises during renovations, EnviroCentre, an Ottawa-based organization that supports businesses and homeowners with sustainability efforts, developed a program that looks to demystify energy efficiency upgrades.

Called Future Homes Ottawa, the pilot program launched last year in Old Ottawa South provides homeowners with information about incentive and rebate programs available to them through the city’s Energy Evolution strategy, aimed at getting Ottawa to net zero emissions by 2050. Future Homes provided home energy assessments for six interested homeowners, developing demonstration project homes which are used to show some key features of an energy-efficient home. (The homeowners of the six demo homes have completed their initial audits and acquired quotes from contractors and their retrofits are being supported by Future Homes.)

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The program was the recipient of the first grant issued by the new Ottawa Climate Action Fund (OCAF), a local organization funded with a $21.7 million endowment from the federal government that helps support low-carbon solutions in the city. Tina Nicholson, director of partnerships and programs at OCAF, said the EnviroCentre project allows homeowners the “opportunity to take a look at your home as a system to make informed energy retrofit upgrades.”

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“When you’re looking at doing energy retrofits and deep retrofits, it’s making sure that you have contractors and service providers that work together,” Nicholson said, pointing out that homeowners doing energy-efficient upgrades may need to tap multiple providers to install a heat pump, update heating, ventilation, and air conditioning and conduct electric work.

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The pilot program wrapped up earlier this year, with a report on its engagement efforts published in April. The second phase of the program will roll out later this year.

Future Homes Ottawa said it’s continuing to build local homeowners’ interest in net-zero ready retrofits while preparing Ottawa tradespersons to execute mass retrofits over the coming years. The program, the organization said, aims to position Ottawa to take advantage of emerging support for national mass retrofits.

Not everyone, though, is on board with offering incentives for retrofit projects. Rebecca Will, who owns a house in Old Ottawa South built in 1912, said it’s not the best use of money.

“Of course, our house needs upgrading every once in a while. It’s like your car needs to be taken into the shop every once in a while,” Will said. “That’s the price of owning something.”

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Will said she prefers the funding goes to people who can’t afford a house at all.

“Why do we need to subsidize the older people in society, myself included, we’ve all had good employment opportunities our whole life. I would rather funds (support) people who are just entering,” Will added. “My son is going to have a lot of trouble buying a house despite being a graduate. So that’s what I feel. I don’t like these programs that are to help out the people who already have a lot.”

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Other homeowners in Old Ottawa South, however, have shown interest in pursuing the “deep retrofits” promoted by the project.

“We’ve been renovating this house for 20 years,” said Susan Townley, whose house was built in 1926. She said she’s very interested in the initiative.

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Townley said her house used to be a multi-generational home where her four children were raised. Originally there were only three bedrooms, so her family changed the physical configuration of the house and added one more room upstairs. Townley’s husband handled all the work except for the electrical and plumbing system which were done professionally.

More generally, Brodie Kinnear, project developer with Future Homes Ottawa, said comfortable living usually “has to do with drafts, air sealing and insulation. When we’re talking about these century homes. A lot of that (problems) has to do with the fact that they’re old, they’re drafty. So you’re not getting stable temperatures throughout the year or even the day maybe.”

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For example, Kinnear said, homeowners know they are blasting the heat but their homes are still cold. As a result, they are burning more fuel than necessary and enlarging their carbon footprint.

Kinnear said 45 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from existing homes and buildings in Ottawa, primarily from heating and cooling, and around 27 per cent of dwellings need to be retrofitted by 2030 and 98 per cent by 2050 to help reach the city’s net-zero goal. 

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Improving energy efficiency, Nicholson said, can also create a healthier environment in the home.

For example, Nicholson has asthma, so she said she is “keenly aware of the improved air quality” in her house after the retrofit.

“If it’s not properly insulated, there’s perhaps condensation and mould. If someone has an underlying health condition, it can make things worse,” said Nicholson.

Nicholson added the project is also about “education” on retrofits for the average residential homeowner.

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