The Future of Condos, pt 4 Death to the electric bill?


The sustainability movement has been alive and well since the late 60’s, when photos of our planet taken from space reminded humans of their fragility and humbled millions in the process. In light of this, there is an increased awareness of our use and allocation of resources, particularly energy and how we manage it. The AEC (architecture, engineering, construction) industry has been well aware of this, as standards have evolved over the past few decades incorporating principles of sustainability and long-term thinking in the design process.

As one takes a step back to take a high level view of the evolution of sustainability in the industry, there is an evident pattern. The direction looks something like this:


  1. Buildings that consume energy ( – )
    Fairly straightforward meaning
  2. Net – zero buildings ( 0 )
    Buildings that produce roughly the same amount of energy they consume
  3. Living buildings ( + )
    Buildings that produce more energy than they consume


Even though steps two and three are not globally widespread, there is pioneering work done in both groups, with a plethora of successful examples and case studies. With that being said, we highlight some contemporary practices moving the needle forward from step one into the next steps, and dropping some jaws along the way.


The power of solar


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In the next 20 years, between 50 percent to 100 percent of the world’s energy production could come from solar. We are on the cusp of a solar revolution where the cost of solar cells will plummet, efficiency will rise dramatically, and the incentives for widespread adoption will become compelling.Peter Diamandis
At present, one of the largest barriers to large scale adoption of solar power, asides from the cost,  is the intrusive and imposing nature of solar panels. They are considered an eyesore to a large amount of people. Enter Ubiquitous Energy, an MIT startup that is getting closer to bringing its completely transparent solar panels to market.

It opens a lot of area to deploy solar energy in a non-intrusive way. It can be used on tall buildings with lots of windows or any kind of mobile device that demands high aesthetic quality like a phone or e-reader. Ultimately we want to make solar harvesting surfaces that you do not even know are there.Richard Lunt, Ubiquitous Energy


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These solar concentrators could turn any window or sheet of glass into a photovoltaic solar cell capable of generating energy. With communities like Freiburg’s solar settlement5 slowly popping up, it’s only a matter of time before the ideas spread more widely. Excess production of energy can actually be put back into the grid, thus generating a profit for its users….. remarkable.


Green roofs


Green roofs offer many tangible and intangible public benefits. Some include:

    • Aesthetic improvement
    • Waste diversion
    • Stormwater management
    • Moderation of urban heat island effect
    • Improved air quality
    • Local job creation
    • Increased biodiversity
    • Energy efficiency
    • Improved health and well-being,etc.6


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We are seeing a movement towards green roofs, not only from a hobbyist’s perspective, but also from government itself. Toronto is the first City in North America to have a bylaw to require and govern the construction of green roofs on new development. It was adopted by Toronto City Council in May 2009.8 It’s a step in the right direction, as Europe has established itself as the leader in green roof technologies due to a direct result of government legislative, and financial support, both at the state and municipal level.

A step further are full grown farms yielding incredibly large amounts of produce, like Ryerson University’s engineering building9. The possibilities are endless.


Rainwater harvesting


As water is increasingly becoming a focal point for all of the world, rainwater harvesting provides solutions for how we can make best use of what nature already provides us. The accumulation and deposition of rainwater for reuse on-site, rather than allowing it to run off, is a clever means of providing an independent water supply to its users. Not only does the practice save ample amounts of money in the long-term, it promotes a more sustainable environment.

Singapore’s Changi airport collects and treats rainwater, which accounts for 28% to 33% of its total water used, resulting in savings of approximately $390,000 per annum. The potential for using rooftops as catchments is incredibly high.10


Commercial rainwater harvesting

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In agriculture rainwater harvesting has demonstrated the potential of doubling food production by 100% compared to the 10% increase from irrigation. Rainfed agriculture is practiced on 80% of the world’s agricultural land area, and generates 65-70% of the world’s staple foods. For instance in Africa more than 95% of the farmland is rainfed, almost 90% in Latin America.Achim Steiner, United Nations Executive Director


Automated parking systems


Agglomeration is a buzzword urban planners love to use when describing the process of creating a vibrant city with inhabitant well-being as a priority. Ever-increasing scarcity of available urban land combined with sustainability and other quality-of-life issues, have renewed interest in automated parking systems as alternatives to multi-story parking garages, on-street parking, and parking lots.13 It’s a mechanical system designed to minimize the area/volume of space required for parking cars.

If you have high-density development, it makes sense to have high-density parking. Talk to any developer: they say for small or irregular sites, robotic parking is the answer to space constraints. It will unlock the real estate potential of many urban infill sites.Donald C. Shoup, professor of urban planning at UCLA

Automated parking system

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Helsinki is a great example of a city at the forefront of vehicle management and their willingness to engage with their public on the topic.

We are not making a car-free Helsinki – that is not possible. “But we are going to take control of where the cars are and how they are used, so that we will have places where it’s really nice to walk, it’s very fast and easy to bike, and public transport is highly efficient. It will be a balanced system.Reetta Putkonen, Director of the transport and traffic planning division for the city of Helsinki


Sewage as energy


Human feces ranges from 55% to 75% water. Much of what remains consists of gaseous methane and a solid residue which, if dried and concentrated, has an energy content similar to that of coal. Unlike coal, this is a fuel that hardly needs to be sought or mined, with high potential for society.18

B.C. is leading the way in using one of mankind’s most renewable resources to heat its buildings. The trend started when both Vancouver and Whistler decided to create neighbourhood energy-generating plants (district-energy systems) for their Olympic villages. They became the first cities in North America to use sewer systems to provide heating and hot water.19

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It has both environmental and financial benefits.

Some people do it for the environmental benefit, but I was raised as a business person. Having your own energy source, you can convert it to anything you need. So if the market drives costs, you can really kind of control that unforeseen cost of energy in the future.David St. Pierre, Executive Director of Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District
It’s an incredibly renewable resource as the human race produces about 640 billion lbs. (290 billion kg) of feces per year, and about 3.5 billion gal. (1.98 billion liters) of urine. The opportunities for ideation are endless. International Wastewater Systems (IWS) installed a solution, called Sewage SHARC, as part of an energy retrofit at the Gateway Theater in the City of Richmond, BC, as well as at a 172 unit condo complex in Vancouver, BC.

According to the IWS, the wastewater heat recovery system installed at the condo development enables the hot water system to run at 550% efficiency, which is cutting hot water heating bills for residents by about 70%.23


The horizon


Giving us the ability to harness and produce more energy than we actually consume, technology is our ally when it comes to solving problems and learning how to better our environments in a sustainable manner. With the horizon starting to shape up, are we beginning to see the end of the electrical bill?

Stay tuned for more of The Future of Condo’s series…

1., 2., 3., 4., 5., 6., 7., 8., 9., 10., 11., 12., 13., 14., 15., 16., 17., 18., 19., 20., 21., 22., 23.