It began when the congregation of Edmonton’s Westmount Presbyterian Church took a long hard look their core values and mission and a briefer look at the long term costs of maintaining their 1950s church. There were, after all, seven furnaces to be fed if the church hall was to be warm. It ended, or at least that chapter did, with the construction of the elegant new Westmount Presbyterian Church, standing alongside one of Canada’s largest net-zero residential projects, and with 16 families moving into new townhomes.
In 2013 the Right At Home Housing Society, a nonprofit devoted to providing, long-term, affordable housing to low-income people in Edmonton was approached by the Westmount Presbyterian Church with an unusual and creative offer; in return for replacing their aging church with a new multi-purpose worship and community building, the church would lease them the remainder of their land at a nominal rate in order that it be used for affordable housing.
Right At Home partnered with Habitat Studios, a custom home builder in Edmonton with a strong, award-winning commitment to environmentally friendly design. While the team’s initial focus was on tackling the unique challenges faced by the many larger families seeking adequate accommodation — these are often refugee and newcomer families — the partners also boldly sought to incorporate green technology into the project’s design.
The costs of incorporating net-zero elements into any tightly budgeted construction project can be daunting. When every dollar must be stretched, green technology can seem like a luxury. All too often those elements are the first things to go.
Right At Home’s experience, however, had shown them that despite the additional upfront costs, the long-term payback on green technology is overwhelmingly worth it. Ultimately the Westmount project was able to achieve net-zero energy use through relying on high performance building envelopes, and a combination of geothermal and solar energy. In addition to bringing financial benefits in the form of lower operating costs — vital in low-income housing — reducing contributions to climate change through low-impact housing helps ensure that Right At Home can deliver on their promise of building strong and healthy communities.
It was through working together with multiple partners and in close consultation with the local community that Westmount Presbyterian Church’s ambitious and visionary goal was achieved. Four of the new units are designed for large, multigenerational families. Each of these has five bedrooms and is over 2100 square feet. The remaining twelve units are 1500 square feet and have three bedrooms. These can accommodate families with up to five children. Two of the units are also built to accommodate step-free wheelchair access.
The Westmount Presbyterian Church’s new multi-purpose building (reclaimed materials from the old church were incorporated into the project) provides a main hall that can be used for both worship and other community events. There’s a large communal kitchen, and several smaller meeting rooms. They’ll also be a daycare on the site.
Mennonite Centre for Newcomers, another partner in the project, will provide language classes to the adults if needed and afterschool programs for the children to help the families thrive in their new lives.
This fall more than 60 children will start attending the school next door to their brand new net-zero homes. Among other things this will help keep a local school, one that neighbourhood children can walk to, remain viable in an era when many schools are being shut down.
All in all, it’s a story about state-of-the-art green technologies and old-fashioned brotherly love working together to keep the best of the past around in a more sustainable future.