By David Dodge and Scott Rollans
With very little money in the bank and an old church they could no longer afford to heat, the Westmount Presbyterian Church was on the brink of failure. Then, they hatched a plan to build Canada’s first net-zero church and social housing project.
“It came about from the congregation realizing that it would be suicide, to continue in an older building that was too expensive to heat,” says Reverend Janet Taylor of the church.
The church was a 1950s-era heat sieve, with no fewer than seven furnaces. According to senior layperson Les Young, an engineering report said there was no affordable way to improve it.
Taking stock, the church realized its old building was sitting on a valuable parcel of land. Meanwhile, they knew the Right at Home Housing Society desperately needed new social housing for large immigrant families.
Despite their decrepit building and lack of cash, the members asked themselves a bold question: “What others can we help with the resources we have?” says Young. “Our location is ideal for families. We’re right opposite a school, which was threatened with closure because of lack of students. And we’re on a bus route.”
Young says they contacted Right at Home, and the project slowly took shape. “We eventually did a swap of the use of the land in return for building a church and 16 units of large family townhouses, with three and five bedrooms each.”
Armed with a free 50-year lease for an ideal block of land, the housing society arranged financing. They agreed to build a new church with a daycare in the basement, and 16 housing units for large immigrant families. In the process, they also saved the neighbourhood school. With 30 new students, thanks to the project, Coronation School is no longer slated for closure.
“Edmonton Right at Home operates the entire building—both this church building and the refugee housing—they oversee all of it. We are technically renters in this space, until the land reverts back to us in 50 years,” says Rev. Taylor.
The congregation used a church in St. Albert while theirs was under construction. Then, in December, their long wait ended. The congregation was able to celebrate Christmas in its own brand-new worship space—and, with a renewed sense of purpose. “I think that made a huge difference for everybody,” says Taylor. Everybody’s kind of entering the new year with an attitude of, okay what’s next?” says Taylor.
Their spirits are lifted even higher by the knowledge they’re no longer saddled with the financial burden of seven overworked furnaces. “Not having to pay heat bills and power bills is a huge boon to the congregation. It certainly helps the people in the housing too, because their utility costs are virtually nonexistent except for their optional utilities,” says Taylor.
Built by one of the fathers of net-zero in Canada
Peter Amerongen of Habitat Studio was chosen to build the project. In 2007, he led a team that built one of Canada’s first net-zero homes. Since then, his company has become a leader in building net-zero.
“We build super-energy-efficient houses,” says Amerongen, “so, it was just natural when we when we went to build a church and and multi-family that we would make them energy efficient.”
Amerongen often has to make the case for going net-zero, but not this time. “I didn’t have to talk them into it at all,” he says, “I felt almost like the kid who had gotten into the candy store or something. It was so easy.”
How to make a church and multi-family units net-zero
“All of the energy that that this site uses, for both buildings, comes from the solar array on the roof,” says Amerongen. “The heating comes from a geothermal system, and the hot water comes from air-source heat-pump hot water tanks. The lighting is LED, and the appliances are super efficient.
“The whole complex is heated with the geothermal system. We have 33 holes drilled into the ground at about 75 meters deep,” Heat pumps then upgrade the ground heat very efficiently to heat the buildings.”
The system is twice as efficient as conventional heating, says Amerongen. “There’s no gas line. And that’s part of what makes the economics work. If we had 16 gas meters we would be looking at 16 times roughly 50 dollars a month fixed charges just to have the meters there. And, because the envelopes are so efficient, we would be hardly using any gas anyway. So it just doesn’t make sense.”
Housing for families that saved the school
Hsar Keelar and her husband Pran Htoo and their five children came to Canada from Myanmar, via a refugee camp in Thailand. After struggling to find a home that could accommodate their large family, they now occupy a five-bedroom unit in the new building. Four of their children attend Coronation School across the street, thereby helping to keep it open.
Les Young says he didn’t even know what net-zero was when the project was being built. “Net-zero didn’t really mean a whole lot to me until I looked it up in the dictionary, or had somebody explain it to me. But I’m really pleased with what came of it.
“From a heating perspective and power perspective, our utility bill is nil. So that’s a big difference, and it’s a big difference for the families too,” says Young. He hopes his church can serve as a model for other groups considering their own construction projects.
At the same time, the project’s environmental benefits are a good fit for the church’s mission. “Christians are mandated to be the stewards of creation,” says Taylor. “That involves a massive amount of responsibility, to make sure that there still is a creation available for our children and grandchildren.”
Net-zero the way of the future
Amerongen believes the project is particularly timely, with Edmonton just starting to build Blatchford, its new carbon-neutral community for 30,000 people. “Our little mini-district energy system, and the what we’ve learned in scaling up, in doing multifamily––I mean these are exactly the buildings that need to go into Blatchford.”