A Perspective on Sustainability by Grant Swanson
To use the technical term, the crawlspaces were disgusting. The year was 2010, and my company, GB3 Energy Solutions, had been hired to weatherize the crawlspaces at ULC’s Dahlia Street Apartments. There was exposed dirt, some mud, standing water, trash, evidence of past animal neighbors, and perhaps more importantly—there was no insulation or vapor barrier between the crawlspaces and the first-floor apartments above. In the winter, warmth from the apartments was sucked into the crawlspaces, making the buildings uncomfortable energy wasters. Using funds from the Governor’s Energy Office, GB3 sealed and insulated the crawlspaces, and an HVAC contractor replaced the buildings’ boilers. Together, these efforts made the buildings much more efficient and comfortable and improved indoor air quality.
Our project at Dahlia Street was my first introduction to ULC and its fabulous work. I am honored to serve on the Board of Directors and head up the ULC Sustainability Advisory Committee all these years later. The project was also an early foray into sustainability improvements to ULC’s impressive real estate portfolio. In the years since, ULC has only strengthened its commitment to environmental sustainability.
Why is it essential to think about how buildings use energy? As efforts are underway worldwide and across all major sectors of the economy to reduce carbon emissions, there are few targets of opportunity as substantial as the built environment. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, buildings in the U.S. account for 29% of national energy consumption. We cannot meaningfully reduce emissions without a major effort to make buildings more efficient. This is especially true when considering the carbon footprint of existing buildings. In general, the older the building, the larger its carbon footprint. Major advances in building codes, building materials, and systems technology have made new construction considerably more efficient than buildings constructed in decades past.
Recognizing that some of the most significant opportunities for enhanced sustainability are with existing buildings, ULC completed a deep energy retrofit of the Oxford Vista Campus in Aurora. The upgrades include geothermal heating and cooling system and 430kWh solar array, resulting in a savings of 780,800 kWh of total energy per year and more than $20,000 in gas costs, $15,000 on system maintenance and repairs, and more than $40,000 in electrical costs annually, and puts ULC at net-zero electricity at the property. To learn more about these upgrades, watch our video tour here.
What lies ahead for ULC in its ongoing push for improved sustainability? In 2022 ULC will lay the groundwork for future sustainability efforts. Key next steps include:
- Strategic Planning – ULC is undertaking its next three-year strategic planning process this year. Just as ULC has made a major commitment to living our values as it relates to diversity, equity, and inclusion and considering a racial equity lens in our work, we also must consider the sustainable impact of the work we do and always strive to be even better environmental stewards. The next three-year strategic plan will re-affirm ULC’s sustainability vision and include new commitments for improved energy efficiency.
- Green Fund – ULC is launching a campaign to raise a Green Fund of low-cost capital to be deployed in sustainability improvements and initiatives across our real estate portfolio. These funds will be used to make major upgrades to our properties, just as we did at Dahlia Street and Oxford Vista.
- Developer Partnerships – While existing buildings present a great sustainability opportunity, we cannot lose sight of the importance of pushing the efficiency envelope in the new buildings our partners are developing on ULC land. What creative financial mechanisms can be used to fund new construction that goes beyond the current building code to new levels of sustainability? How can offsets be created in new development projects that will fund retrofits to existing ULC buildings? There are opportunities to engage creatively with our development partners and the communities where we work and collaborate to achieve our sustainability goals.
- ULC Sustainability Advisory Committee – Early this year, we launched an advisory committee to inform and guide ULC’s sustainability efforts. The committee comprises ULC board members and staff and includes several external stakeholders who bring subject matter expertise to the table. The committee is excited by the charge to take ULC’s sustainability vision and efforts to the next level.