Energy Award

Green Stars: LeBreton Flats and a Revolutionary Solar-powered Community Near Calgary are Leaders in a Drive to Smart Living
By Sheila Brady, The Ottawa Citizen – November 26, 2005

The words vary, but the message is the same. Green is now mainstream, in from the fringe where boomers with a conscience and their comfy Birkenstocks lived in odd homes powered by generators, air, or the warmth of the deep Earth.

Now you will find folks in their Birkenstocks and fashionistas in their sleek Manolo Blahniks buying organic veggies and chickens at the grocery store. The green movement has also gone from sensible T-shirts to high fashion hemp, with speciality shops opening all over Canada.

The green movement, also known as sustainable or eco-friendly communities, is now making inroads into the housing industry, which is renowned for being slow to take up new ideas because of the financial risk and possibly turning off potential buyers.

Look around Ottawa, there's a trio of green condos planned for Wellington Street near Holland Avenue by Tartan Urban and Windmill Developments. This weekend, Claridge is going green with the first phase of six condo buildings planned for LeBreton Flats.

In April, construction will start on the first building and residents will move into a gold standard, energy-smart condo by the fall of 2007, says Claridge vice-president Neil Malhotra.

"Our original proposal called for a silver level LEED building (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and we decided to go the extra step.

"Ottawa buyers have a similar attitude to buying green as Vancouver," says Malhotra. "It is important for them."

Claridge is billing LeBreton as an eco-friendly community that will be 35-per-cent more energy efficient than a conventional building.

At the head of the green parade is a revolutionary community south of Calgary that has sold out the first phase of 25 homes and has a list of eager buyers waiting to sign on for the second half of 25 homes in Drake Landing Solar Community.

It is the first solar-powered community in North America and the largest community of R-2000 homes in Canada.

There is already a row of six model homes and the first families will be moving into their homes in April, says Clint Pilon, sales manager for Sterling Homes, the builder behind the community that will be fuelled by water heated by the summer Alberta sun and stored in underground tanks and then pumped to the homes by a central pumping station during the winter months.

Drake Landing residents will never be chilly in the winter because a boiler powered by natural gas will back up the solar heating system.

"They (the buyers) aren't wacky at all," says Pilon, adding buyers in the first phase of 25 homes are from Quebec, Seattle, estate homes and the suburbs of Calgary. Sales opened in September and the first phase sold out earlier this month.

"Many are downsizing from larger homes and like the idea of green." The second phase of 25 homes is to be launched in early January and there are already more than 50 people who want to buy, says Pilon.

"The Calgary housing market is unbelievable and sales here are keeping up."

Buyers pay a five-per-cent premium for the modest two-storey homes that feature 1,500 to 1,600 square feet of living space and sit on 34-foot lots that stretch back 120 feet. Prices start at $230,000 for the R-2000 homes and feature about $40,000 in upgrades, including fencing, low-flush toilets and showerheads and a solar domestic heating system.

When the central solar system is up and functioning – it will take a couple of years for the underground system to be working at 100 per cent – the homes will use 30-per-cent less energy than a conventional house.

Drake Landing is a dream realized for federal public servant Doug McClenahan, program manager for active solar research and the country's leading expert on solar-powered communities.

McClenahan cut his teeth on solar technology while attending the University of Toronto in 1977 and watched in dismay as an underground solar storage tank supplying the power needs of 30 homes in Aylmer leaked badly.

"That project did not work out in the best way," says the Natural Resources Canada official, who linked up with Sterling Homes, the Calgary Home Builders' Association, the province of Alberta and the Alberta community of Okotoks to shepherd Drake Landing through the approval stage.

"Drake Landing is definitely ahead of its time," says McClenahan, who admits the price of natural gas has to double to make solar-powered communities financially feasible.

Drake Landing, which will be closely monitored for several years, is a reality because of $2 million in federal grants, an additional $635,000 from Alberta and $2.9 million from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Drake Landing is also attracting national and international attention, says Keith Paget, manager of special projects for Sterling Homes and a strong supporter of the community.

The website has been translated into four languages and attracted attention from China, Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands. CNN and the Discovery Channel will also be visiting Drake Landing early in 2006, says Paget, who says it was Alberta's commitment to green building and a link to the local utilities company that made the community a reality. He would like to see solar communities of 200 to 1,000 homes in the future.

Energy consultant Gordon Cook is leading a delegation of Energy Star builders from the Toronto area to Drake Landing.

"You always need to be inspired to show what is possible," says Cook, who says Drake Landing is a bit of a reach for conventional builders in a conservative industry.

And you have to remember that it takes 20 to 25 years for builders to adopt new technologies – think about high-efficiency furnaces, improved trusses that you don't see and heat-recovery ventilators that improve air quality, says the owner of Air Solutions in Toronto.

New technologies means financial risks and that can lead to financial woes, even bankruptcy, says Cook.

"Buyers still think builders don't build homes like they used to and that older homes are better then newer homes. It's an attitude."

It's a wrong-headed attitude that should be ditched.