Designing its way to a cleaner future, Halifax reaches for net zero

How one of Canada's oldest cities is revamping its buildings to slow the climate crisis

Over the last six months, Canada's National Observer has been looking into what's working and what's failing in cities across Canada as they rise to the challenge of fighting climate change. In a 13-part series, we will be taking you across the country, province by province, for a look at how cities are meeting the climate emergency with sustainable solutions.

July 5th 2021
  • Halifax, one of the oldest cities in Canada, has pledged to reach net zero by 2050. But a major energy waster is standing in its way: old, leaky buildings.
  • The ReCover Initiative, a local not-for-profit, is developing a technique for retrofitting buildings in Halifax that could be scaled up and applied across the country.
  • A community retrofit program is in the works to help residents afford upgrades like insulation and draft-proofing and drive down energy demand.

The guilt hit Lorrie Rand in her 20th year of designing upscale renovations and sprawling oceanfront homes.

The Halifax architectural designer thought about every concrete foundation, every steel beam, that each of these materials was finite, and she was taking, taking, taking.

“That started to feel icky for me,” said Rand. “I love my job and making houses and beautiful things for people, but I don’t want to be doing bad things for the world because we have very little time.”

Halifax declared a climate emergency in 2019, joining countries and major cities around the world, including more than 500 other jurisdictions in Canada. The capital city of Nova Scotia has since pledged to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. But in order to get close to that ambitious if not lofty target, the city of just under half a million people will need to deal with the single biggest energy waster facing all cities in North America: old, leaky buildings.

We have this massive cleanup act to do between now and 2050. If we don’t figure it out quickly, how to lower emissions in these buildings, we’re not going to succeed.

Lorrie Rand, co-founder of Habit Studio

“We have this massive cleanup act to do between now and 2050. If we don’t figure it out quickly, how to lower emissions in these buildings, we’re not going to succeed. We’ll never meet them,” said Rand, co-founder of Habit Studio, which specializes in building sustainable houses and low-carbon retrofits.

Halifax, a city of just over 400,000 people, is the eighth oldest in Canada. It is well-loved for its leafy streets and many heritage buildings, which give the city its charm. But heritage runs counter to efficiency.

Buildings and homes, particularly those built before 1996, says Rand, are cities’ worst carbon culprits and make up the majority of structures in the province. And while it remains too expensive for many people and businesses to retrofit their homes and buildings for energy efficiency, this is where Rand comes in.

She and her business partner, Judyann Obersi, and a few like-minded others launched an ambitious not-for-profit side hustle that may be the answer to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in older buildings.

The ReCover Initiative is tailored after EnergieSprong, a successful Dutch building retrofit method that’s large-scale and repeatable, where insulation panels, siding and windows are prefabricated and assembled off site.

Rand and her group are adapting the method to tackle Nova Scotia’s old, leaky building problem, which the city has singled out as imperative to meet its targets.

Fuel and electricity used to heat buildings and homes accounted for 70 per cent of energy use in Halifax and 77 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions in 2016, according to the city’s climate action plan. Many of the buildings built before 1996 use twice as much energy as those built later, says Rand.

ReCover is already underway, following a Nova Scotia government-funded feasibility study, and it’s about to tackle its first project, a 40-year-old brick, shoebox-style apartment building.

First, the building is laser scanned for measurements, then the shell is made off site. Installation takes a fraction of the time — about three weeks — of using a typical building approach. Her goal is to develop a building envelope retrofit prototype that can be shared and repeated. After ReCover puzzles out low-rise, multi-unit buildings, the plan is to create a similar blueprint for single-family homes.

“We’re just trying to literally give people the recipe: We figured this out. Here’s how to do it. It’s going to cost about the same for the first few buildings, but the more you do this, the cheaper it’s going to get,” said Rand.

Lorrie Rand, co-founder, president and lead designer at Habit Studio, in front of a building being planned for a retrofit in Halifax on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Photo by Darren Calabrese

The Netherlands program, for instance, cut the price in half within the first four years, Rand adds.

“It’s just so important. Finally, we see the climate crisis is looming, and maybe it’s too late, but we can only put one foot in front of the other.”

Other cities, such as Oakville and Burlington in Ontario and Saskatoon, are in talks about developing the ReCover Initiative for their affordable housing buildings.

Halifax doesn’t own affordable housing (the province does), but the city’s energy and environment program manager, Shannon Miedema, says the city supports the ReCover Initiative and is offering up one of its buildings for the group to pilot.

“We really need to drive the price down to get the uptake,” she said. “As a city, we’re really supportive of that type of approach, and I’m hoping we can do a project with them, we just have to wait and see what happens.”

She says the city is also developing its own retrofit program to fast-track energy savings in all buildings as part of its climate action plan, coined HalifACT, which was greenlit a year ago.

Halifax's efforts to tackle climate change are in step with Nova Scotia’s ambitions. The province has gone all-in on emission reductions by expanding renewable energy and is shedding its dependency on coal.

Nova Scotia aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80% below 2009 levels by 2050.

The Canadian Institute for Climate Choices, a non-profit climate think tank, points to Nova Scotia as Canada’s stellar success story. “Nova Scotia provides a tangible example of what clean growth means in practice,” a study by the non-profit think tank declared in September 2020. Between 2005 and 2018, Nova Scotia reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 26 per cent, the study said.

A 2019 climate change update stated the province’s electricity sector was on track to produce 40 per cent of electricity from renewable sources by 2020. It plans to eliminate the use of coal by 2030, and its long-term goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80 per cent below 2009 levels by 2050.

But switching to renewables will not be enough. The province's Efficiency Nova Scotia programs offer incentives to individuals and businesses for home and building renovations.

Going all-in on home retrofits

Miedema said the goal set by Halifax is to retrofit every home and building by 2040, which would save 1,470 kilotonnes of carbon emissions — the single biggest reduction in the city. So, how does the city plan to do it?

First on the priority list is a community retrofit program for homes and buildings. “It’s also a really hard area to figure out,” she said, adding it has to be more comprehensive than the incentive programs that already exist for products like solar panels. Solar panels and heat pumps just scratch the surface of greenhouse gas reductions, she says; the real work involves driving down energy demand.

Halifax’s retrofit program hopes to offer third-party financing from a credit union or one of the national banks, says Miedema.

The city’s climate action plan also promises to reduce emissions through electrifying transportation, net-zero standards for new buildings, large-scale renewables and rooftop solar at a total cost of $22 billion, which is expected to be offset by cost savings.

One of the largest savings occurs from reduced fuel and electricity demand, a bill that cost residents and businesses $1.5 billion in 2016. These energy costs would be reduced to $1.2 billion in 2050 under Halifax’s climate action plan, an impressive goal given the projected growth of the city over the next few decades.

Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting financial impact on the city, Halifax is determined to make progress on its climate change plan, says Mayor Mike Savage.

“We passed HalifACT during COVID. We set ambitious targets during COVID,” the mayor said during his annual state of the municipality speech on Feb. 16. “We're not going to slow down on HalifACT 2050. We can’t.”

In terms of big-picture energy efficiency in Canada, Nova Scotia is considered a leader for its programs that incentivize homeowners to switch to heat pumps and install solar panels. The provincial rebate program has helped more than 400,000 people and businesses, saved $1 billion in energy costs and reduced nearly one million tonnes of carbon emissions each year.

But as Rand points out, those “shallow” retrofits don’t address the building’s envelope and, in order to meet targets, programs have to go deeper. “Switching to a heat pump is cleaner and going to save money, but the building is still leaky — a great thing to do, but doesn’t address the building envelope,” she said, adding that doing so is outside many homeowners’ budgets.

Homeowner Dave Bezanson in front of his family's Halifax home that was recently retrofitted — including solar panels — walks up his driveway on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. Photo by Darren Calabrese

Dave and Krista Bezanson, who recently bought and renovated a 2,800-square-foot, 1950s two-storey home in Halifax’s Armdale community, were able to afford new insulation, a new door and some windows to seal the home’s envelope and reduce their energy consumption.

There’s no fossil fuels other than what’s being burned by the grid.

Dave Bezanson, homeowner

The family of four spent $500,000 designing a modern, open-concept kitchen and living space with lots of light and white oak cabinetry, while also choosing to decarbonize their energy usage. The Bezansons installed a blanket of solar panels on the roof of the house — which are connected to the power grid — as well as a heat pump, induction cooktop stove and an electric fireplace.

“There’s no fossil fuels other than what’s being burned by the grid,” said Dave Bezanson. (Nova Scotia’s electrical utility, Emera, still burns coal, one of the dirtiest ways to generate electricity, though the company has committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and pledges to reduce coal use by at least 80 per cent in the next two years.) The Bezanson family also reused existing flooring and used non-pressure-treated wood to build a new back deck overlooking trees and a lake.

“I was trying to think 10 or 20 years down the road, what would the house of the future be?” said Dave Bezanson, a vice-president of commercial operations at Emera. “Let’s do what we can to make it as green as possible.”

The driving force behind the retrofits was twofold, Bezanson said. The family was in a financial position where it could afford to think about their two children’s future and the climate emergency. “We should be an example of doing something about that,” he said.

Making energy-saving improvements affordable

Nova Scotia is in third place nationally on the Canadian Energy Efficiency Policy Scorecard, according to Efficiency Canada, and has all the pieces in place to achieve its own net-zero greenhouse gas emission goal. The province received high marks for its inclusive programs, spending the most on low-income and Indigenous programs. Since 2007, about 16,000 low-income Nova Scotians have taken advantage of the province’s HouseWarming program, which offers free energy efficiency upgrades like insulation and draft-proofing to low-income homeowners.

It’s made a big difference in the lives of David and Aline Keddy, who had their three-storey townhouse in Dartmouth, N.S., outfitted with new insulation in 2017. They say their home heating bill has been cut in half. Now, they’re saving about $200 a month and have reduced their carbon footprint after qualifying as low-income homeowners.

“Our floors are warm, the whole house is warm,” said Aline Keddy, age 77. “When you’re at our age, you sit a little bit more, we’ll watch a movie, we’ll read. You need that extra heat to keep us going. And in the summer it’s always cool because of the insulation. In fact, people think we have central air.”

While the couple is still using fossil fuel, the program has helped reduce their carbon footprint, something David Keddy, a lifelong music teacher, says is the very least they can do now with the looming climate crisis. “As an 80-year-old man, my time is over, but I have great fear in my heart for the generation coming,” he said.

If all homeowners, like the Keddys and the Bezansons, do their part to retrofit their homes, will it be enough to meet targets? And will Halifax’s climate action plan be enough?

“Mother Nature has the last say,” said Dalhousie University professor Larry Hughes, the founding fellow for the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy and Governance.

Halifax is projected to experience more heat waves, more rain and snow and an increasing number of severe storms — all of which can drive climate hazards such as rising sea levels and invasive species, according to the Climate Atlas of Canada.

Hughes emphasized the need to focus on reducing the amount of energy we use and doing away with fossil fuels in buildings and transportation. Creating and maintaining policies and programs to offer more incentives to people who need it the most is essential, he adds.

“It’s being called an emergency for a reason because we are now under a possible stage in which the climate will be doing far more unpredictable things than we could have expected,” said Hughes, pointing to the melt in the high Arctic, which is happening much sooner than scientists predicted. “Things are happening far more rapidly.”