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Toronto’s apartment upgrade project will need incentives to fly

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by Ian Harvey

Toronto’s Tower Renewal pilot project will need strong political support to encourage building owners to upgrade their properties if it is going to succeed on a large scale.
Toronto’s Tower Renewal Project
Toronto’s Tower Renewal Project

Building Envelope

Toronto’s Mayor David Miller’s Tower Renewal pilot project is on track but will need strong political support to encourage building owners to invest in upgrading their properties if it is ever going to succeed on a large scale, says one of its key proponents.

Miller announced the sites for the demonstration projects to act as prototypes and “laboratories” to develop the hands-on learning around which materials, technologies and skills will be required to tackle restoration and upgrading of the more than 1,000 residential apartment towers built between 1960 and 1980 across Toronto.

The renewal plan could reduce energy costs by 50 per cent at the four demonstration sites: Kipling and Finch avenues, one building at Markham Road and Eglinton Ave. E East, two buildings at Jarvis Street-Wellesley Avenue and one at Don Mills Road and Sheppard Avenue.

They are being looked at for new insulated roofing, new windows, overcladding of walls and balconies, replacement of HVAC systems, news lighting systems and replacement of plumbing fixtures with water-conserving technology. Payback is between 10 and 12 years with returns of 13 to 17 per cent depending on how high energy prices climb.

But the structures are aging and their owners have done little more than the bare minimum in terms of maintenance, says Dr. Ted Kesik, professor at the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design who is part of a group reviewing best practices and technologies for retrofits and a prime driver of the project.

Each building comes with its own set of challenges, he says.

First, there’s a price tag in the $25,000 to $30,000 per unit range for restoration.

“It depends on what kind of shape the building is in to start with,” Dr. Kesik says. “But it is a scary number. The question for the owners is, do they want to kill the goose which lays the golden egg or do they want to do something.

Basically, some of these buildings are on life support and the cash flow they generate will stop rolling eventually if they don’t take action.”

Demolishing the buildings and starting again isn’t an option either, he says, noting that in many cases the original zoning won’t be available and demolition costs are high.

“And these are large units — they were built for families, some are three-bedroom — and they’re just not building this size of housing any more,” he says.

“In this case, the chassis is good, so it’s worth investing in and there’s a social issue here.”

Given the costs, however, to get the owners on board will require some incentives from the city and perhaps other levels of government.

The city has talked incentives for rezoning the large undeveloped and under-utilized lands around the buildings for townhouse or other residential and commercial development, along with other grants or tax credits.

In the meantime, says Dr. Kesik, the survey and assessment of best practices should be completed by the first day of summer.

“And the city has been working with us, so there’s not much that will need to be done in the way of a review after that,” he says.

Brian Shedden, Building Science Specialist Ontario, who vice president of client services at J. McBride & Sons Ltd., is on the technical steering committee of the tower project. He too, says there are other hurdles ahead but they are all solvable.

“The good news is that we have proven technologies and everyone understands them,” he says.

“What we need to do now is package it so that you don’t need a PhD to understand what we want to do and make a case for it with the building owners.”

He says two of the four towers could get underway almost immediately after the plan of attack is formulated and agreed on by all stakeholders but that securing a labour pool will be another challenge.

“It’s a completely different set of skills than new construction,” says Shedden. “So you really do have to train people.”

Restoration means working in tight quarters, working with existing structures and being mindful of the people living in the units.

With the slowdown in the economy also hitting the construction industry, he says, lining up interested workers for training shouldn’t be an issue.

Indeed, says Cristina Selva, director of training for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners Central Ontario Region, there’s strong interest from the trades to get on board and start training.

“We’re just waiting for the word,” says Selva.

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