Canadian Charity Is Building Social Housing to PassiveHouse Standard

©. Invisij Architects

Indwell is doing remarkable things in and around Hamilton, Ontario.

Most of the PassiveHouse projects we show on TreeHugger are pretty splashy and flashy; every design site loves pretty pictures. But around the world, under the radar, projects are being built that show how the PassiveHouse concept is catching on and having a big impact on buildings and the people who live in them.

For example, down the road from Toronto in gritty, formerly industrial Hamilton, Ontario, Indwell, a charitable organization has been building housing as "a Christian response to deinstitutionalization" for forty years, providing support for vulnerable adults dealing with mental health issues. And more recently, the housing they have been building has been designed to the tough PassiveHouse standard.

graph of consumption

Graph of consumption/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This was, for me, the most remarkable slide shown by Graham Cubitt of Indwell, shown at the PassiveHouse Canada presentations at IIDEX in Toronto. It shows the dramatic decline in energy intensity in their buildings, starting on the left with an ordinary Multiple Unit Residential Building (MURB). Every building they do is better than the previous one.

The projects are designed by Invizij, a Hamilton firm that makes no pretentions about what they do. Their firm description includes paragraphs like:

We are skilled at working with multiple stakeholders and gathering detailed information necessary to convert complex functional programs into efficient architectural solutions. We pay attention to serving our client’s immediate needs while ensuring that anticipated future aspirations are also addressed.
Rudy Hulst

© Invizij Architects

As shown on the graph, the Rudy Hulst building didn't get close to the PassiveHouse standard of total energy consumption of 60 KWh/m2/year. Graham Cubitt said that the mechanical system was the problem here. But it demonstrated the progression toward Passive; it also has that look of a PassiveHouse building with a tight budget, where architects have to deal with relatively small windows on a big flat wall, and turn to different colors of cladding to break up the mass. You will be seeing a lot of this.

harvey woods lofts

© Invizij Architects

Canadian kids used to wear Harvey Woods socks and underwear; now all the local millineries are bankrupt and their factories demolished or turned into lofts. But this building in Woodstock, Ontario, survived long enough to be turned into affordable housing. According to the architects:

Harvey woods atrium

© Invizij Architects

Much of the original building’s structure remains visible including the original maple floors, wood columns, and steel beams. The original brick facades will remain untouched with the exception of high-performance windows and a new entry & elevator. The centre of the building will be carved out to create a three-storey atrium with a large skylight with shared light to the residential corridors. The building is super-energy efficient and includes a geothermal well system for both heating and cooling.

It is really hard to get renovations even close to PassiveHouse standard, but again, looking at the graph, this one has pushed the energy consumption down to less than half of code requirements and really, not much above PassiveHouse. That's impressive, and so is the architecture here.

500 James

© Invizij Architects

Coming soon, however, is 500 James Street North. Most TreeHugger posts about Hamilton over the years have been rather negative, focusing on the City's obsessions with 6-lane one-way streets, killing transit projects and knocking down historic buildings, but lately The Hammer has been on a roll, building the Province's first sorta tall wood building, turning James Street into a two-way street that is now the trendiest strip in town (when they are not abusing pedestrians), and now it's getting another tourist attraction, "a contemporary church with a focus on sports ministries along with 45 apartments."

The entire development is targeted for Passive House certification, and when it is completed will likely be one of the largest and most complex Passive House projects in Canada... The four-storey building consists of 45 one- and two-bedroom apartments, tenant common room, bike storage and other amenity spaces. One of Indwell's values is to be accommodating for all people, and as a result nine of the apartments will be fully barrier free. The ground floor and basement include church spaces such as a gymnatorium to seat 500 people, a large glazed atrium and foyer spaces, a chapel, hospitality spaces and a community kitchen, offices, and classrooms for youth programs from nursery through high school.

I often think of this picture of Elon Musk and his vision of The Future We Want with solar roofs on suburban houses with big batteries and two Teslas in the double garage. But look at Hamilton, which is now actually saving buildings, attracting the artists and young people priced out of Toronto, building the controversial transit line, and now, with Indwell and architects Invizij, doing affordable housing at Passivehouse standard. We are actually getting the Future We Need.

Graham Cubitt

Graham Cubitt at IIDEX/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Thanks to Graham Cubitt, Director of Projects and Development for Indwell, for a really inspiring presentation.