What is a Synergistic Deep Retrofit™?

I’ve been a little obsessed with how buildings are designed since I took a trip to the other side of the planet when I was a teenager and saw how ridiculously identical everything was.

Here I was in an almost subtropical city, and I felt like Dorothy from Wizard of Oz. It was like I could close my eyes and click those ruby slippers and be back home in an instant. I looked for my friends at school (since it reminded me so much of being in school at home). I looked for my relatives sitting behind the wheel of the car that passed by (but they were all driving on the wrong side). Everything seemed so familiar. But one thing stood as being different—it was just so much colder indoors in Australia than I could have ever imagined!

In Canada, we had the same drafty Victorian brick homes that I was admiring in Melbourne, yet we had, at some point, got tired of freezing almost to death, and put in central heating systems with coal boilers. I dug out the entrance (the coal chute) to our old house, and I can’t imagine all of the coal that would have been delivered to this drafty old house back then. A few sheets of newspapers were the only insulation in the walls back then. Yet, the generations that followed used these same familiar traditional designs. Even though these buildings gobbled through massive amounts of coal, and the soot blocked the chimneys and clouded the air so much so that we were literally choking to death in our cities.

People died from the smog caused by burning coal in London. There was a particularly bad incident and there were so many deaths. They looked to switch to a cleaner fuel source. They were able to find one but they didn’t do much about the source of the problem: pathetic “pretty” architecture.

It’s one thing to be cold in Canada, where you can freeze to death in less than half an hour of exposure, and another to be cold in Melbourne, where you just get chilly. Putting in central heating systems was an unwarranted luxury that few bothered with. Houses still performed badly in Australia, but only the people suffered not the planet.

As Canadians, on a per person basis, we have one of the highest carbon footprints on the planet. The main cause is the terrible performance of our buildings. The main cause of the terrible performance is terrible architecture, if you can even call it that.

We have scared off architects from designing homes. Suburbs are planned as if we are living on an infinite planet with inexhaustible resources. Instead we should be planning every suburb so that passive solar, passive survivability, urban agriculture, and multi-generational homes with living in place for elderly is able to be implemented easily and cost-effectively. We are left with suburbs that have the requisite two-care garage, four or five bedrooms, impressive entrance, and granite countertops. Outside we display green monocultures as if they the owners are a Lord and there are even fences around it to keep out the Serfs.

Let’s all stop playing and pretending as if we live in Disneyland!

We are killing the only place that we can call home! This is the only planet that we know we can survive on! We can’t even run a space station without sending up suppliers from this planet.

What do we do with this crappy architecture?

We need to carefully assess if we should invest time, carbon and energy into retrofitting these existing buildings. Are they in an orientation that enables high performance? Do they have enough room around them for the addition of insulation on the exterior? Or can we gut them from the interior? Is there a habitat that has been created? Do we just raze the whole area and start over?

If we do keep the building then we can’t just upgrade the mechanical and electrical systems any more. They need to be Synergistic Retrofits™ so that the elements of the retrofits build on each other to create something that is greater than the whole of the sum of its parts.

Synergistic Retrofits™ start with being heavy on the building envelope side, and that, in turn, reduces the heating and cooling loads of the building. Sometimes, with enough insulation, you can heat the whole house with only a few people and a toaster. Throwing a dinner party would set you up for a few days, provided you could store the heat somewhere!

But a Synergistic Retrofit™ is more that a building upgrade. It also has the goal of human health in mind. When you upgrade the building envelope then the building gets tighter. You have to do something with all of the water vapour created by breathing and cooking indoors that normally gets drafted out. You have to implement measures to deal with that or mould issues become an unintended consequence. And you have to use healthy building materials if you are going to be breathing in all of that air in such tight quarters.

Both the envelope upgrades to deal with the heating and cooling loads and the mechanical systems to deal with the water vapour serve to make the building more efficient. The impact on ecosystems in lessened.

But unfortunately that just means that we are still sitting in the same train that is on the same track headed headed for the same Catastrophic Climate Change wiped out track ahead—we aren’t going to make it. What do we do instead? I’m up for some suggestions, but I have a few ideas up my sleeves. Stay tuned.

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