The Village Green

A blog about how Canadians can achieve energy independence by powering down and then powering up the right way.

As the world convened in Copenhagen for the COP15 (Meeting of the Parties) climate change talks, we sat down this morning with the management of the first non-profit housing complex in Canada to begin mapping out an energy efficiency strategy that will bring the property into the 21st century.

This project comes as the property approaches its centenary.  Construction on the buildings that comprise the complex began in 1913, was interrupted by World War 1, and was completed in 1925. 

The property is most everything we’d want - modest, practical, human-scaled, really quite pretty and tucked away in one of the city’s historic neighbourhoods, the kind of neighbourhood we used to build and will be required to build once again  – and it presents the complex but not impossible task of bringing our built-form into the 21st century. 

The hodge-podge of the site speaks to both the challenge and the opportunity.  New windows on some units with others from the 1920’s; insulation in some parts of the buildings while others have none; kludged boiler upgrades plugged into pipes and hydronics suitable, literally, for a WW1 submarine.  Upgrades done based on the need and the resources of the day, such are the challenges of buildings approaching their centenary.

As our client is finding, World War 1 vintage properties – the kind which predominate inner-city Toronto – will have to be brought into the 21st century.  It’s expensive, it’s messy, it’s complicated and the costs are front-end-loaded, but such projects will more than pay for themselves in terms of energy savings in very short order.  In our client’s case, as we begin future-proofing their buildings, they’ll become significantly more comfortable as, among other things, $100,000 or more of insulation will be added to buildings that, in some cases, had very little in the first place.

Fewer, better things
This project is an acknowledgement of the realities of the 21st century: we’re going to have to pay more for energy and use less of it.  This is the task and challenge at hand.  How we meet it will define the future.

We can see this as a future marked by sacrifice and hardship or it can become something else altogether: a global platform for ingenuity; a second industrial revolution; a new prosperity project with a prosperity that is widely shared instead of closely held.

As we discover a world marked by natural resource scarcity we’ll discover something else: people and ingenuity are abundant.  Our business processes have tended to view resources as limitless as opposed to talent and ingenuity.  We got it backward while squandering both. 

As we begin paying the true cost of resources, a radical rethinking of “stuff” will be required.  Prosperity will no longer be about having lots of stuff.  Rather, it will be about having fewer, better things.  Further, by having fewer, better things, we will be required to obsolesce obsolescence.

As we are forced to use fewer resources in our business processes, people become important once again.  The value of products will no longer merely be defined by the resources jammed into them but rather by the ingenuity, craftsmanship and skill involved in their making.  As our co-op housing client has found, there is no shortage of insulation but there is a shortage of skilled people who can design the project, get it off the ground, and install the systems that are designed. 

All of this will require a radical re-think of the way we do things.  But isn’t this what we’re regularly told business is supposed to be good at?   When we begin pricing resources at their real value, businesses that figure out ways to use them efficiently will thrive.  Those that can’t, won’t.

The climate change talks at COP15 can be seen from the perspective of sacrifice or they can be seen as a platform for a new prosperity project.  Our clients are tending to see it as the latter.  

Gabriel Draven

Village Technologies

December 2009