How Canada’s most famous address could become a symbol of environmental sustainability

In Canada’s capital, a mansion at 24 Sussex Drive has been the official residence of the prime minister for decades — similar to 10 Downing Street in the UK. The country’s newly elected leader, however, has decided to move his family to a property across the road. The reason? Years of neglected maintenance.

Considering the amount of public scrutiny the occupants and the building at “24 Sussex” receive, you could almost compare it to one of Climate-KIC’s ‘living labs‘ — buildings that are used to test technology prototypes in real-life environments. The people living or working in the ‘lab’ are part of the testing.

In 2008, a government report said the prime ministerial property — built in 1868 — needed some $10 million (about €7 million) in repairs. It would take at least a year to complete and would include about “everything from cracked windows and caulking to failing air conditioning and ‘deficient’ plumbing,” reports the Guardian. Not to mention the asbestos in the walls.

Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister living at the address when the 2008 report came out, refused to carry out the work — presumably fearing, like many before him, that it wouldn’t look too great if he would use tax payer’s money to improve his own residence.

But following Justin Trudeau‘s landslide victory on behalf of the Liberal Party last month, some have now called for the building to simply be torn down. They would rather replace it with a modern, more energy efficient building, they say.

The greenest buildings

Trudeau, who actually grew up at 24 Sussex in the 1970’s as the son of former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, has decided to move his family to another government property rather than move back into the official residence — for now. But he hasn’t yet made up his mind about the fate of what is still Canada’s most famous address.

Benjamin Shinewald, president and CEO of the Building Owners and Managers Association of Canada, certainly hopes prime minister Trudeau will decide to refurbish the building. “The greenest buildings are the ones already built,” he writes in the Globe and Mail.

But he understands Trudeau couldn’t live in it in its current state: “[It] is filled with knob-and-tube wiring, largely inaccessible to the disabled and full of asbestos. Who can blame our new Prime Minister – particularly given his young children – for choosing to live across the street.”

Environmental impact

The mansion’s environmental impact is disgraceful, says Shinewald. “Our prime ministers were living in an energy hog, with plastic sheets stapled to window frames in winter and multiple air conditioning units replacing them in summer.”

Upgrading existing buildings will always be more cost-effective and environmentally efficient, he claims.

Buildings are (…) highly complex, IT-driven mini-ecosystems, where property managers’ decisions affect GHG emissions, water use intensity and indoor air quality far more than architects’ plans

“Buildings are not static entities with fixed environmental profiles. Rather, they are highly complex, IT-driven mini-ecosystems, where property managers’ decisions affect GHG emissions, water use intensity and indoor air quality far more than architects’ plans,” Shinewald says. 

“Let’s restore this jewel to its earlier grandeur, and let it be a symbol of environmental sustainability and of the proper maintenance of public infrastructure across our country,” he concludes.

But what would be the most efficient way, both for the climate and the public’s purse? Tear it down or refurbish it? That’s one of the things we test in our living labs.

A symbol for sustainability

At Climate-KIC, one of the ways we fast-track environmentally friendly building technologies to market is through our living labs. By conducting tests with actual building users and in real climate conditions, researchers can evaluate the performance of new products in a more realistic manner.

The labs are located across all major European climatic zones to cover all important user requirements. The work that is carried out by innovators in living labs across Europe — and around the world — is a crucial piece of the climate change puzzle, and yet it rarely (never) makes the front pages.

Very much unlike Justin Trudeau’s childhood home. It has even been suggested the restoration of the building should be turned in to a reality show.

“The resurrection of 24 Sussex Drive should be documented as a showcase of Canadian history and innovation,” someone recently told the Globe and Mail.

So whether it ends up being torn down or — perhaps more likely — will be refurbished: 24 Sussex will draw unprecedented attention to energy efficiency in buildings, and could well become a symbol for sustainability.

Also see: Canada is going to the polls, you won’t believe what this might mean for climate change

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