Tenants learn to operate eco-friendly energy systems

Community rooftop garden at a building in Olympic Village. Photo by Anne-Laurence Godefroy

Community rooftop garden at a building in Olympic Village. Photo by Anne-Laurence Godefroy

A year ago, Aileen Ellis, 82, moved into one of two cutting-edge, city-owned buildings reserved for low-income earners in Vancouver’s Olympic Village (The Village). Since then, using her complicated, high-tech condo energy system has been a challenge, and she’s not alone.

The Village is home to residents of diverse backgrounds, cultures and levels of education. Sixty per cent of the units are non-market, and forty per cent are costly market rentals. Many tenants didn’t understand how their building’s energy system worked or how to operate it effectively, and education was not initially targeted to these individual groups.

In 2009, sustainability was at the heart of the Village’s concept. Architects built technologically advanced buildings where energy is interdependent, and low emissions targets can only be attained if the energy circulates between units as well as between adjacent buildings.

But after a year of occupancy, the two city-owned buildings were not reaching their low emissions targets. Residents, blaming a complicated energy system, were not curbing their energy usage as anticipated. In 2011, bills were so much higher than expected that the City of Vancouver offered to pay them for the entire year.

The problem was serious enough that, with the city’s support, CHF BC’s executive director, Thom Armstrong, decided to run an educational program called “Building a Sustainable Tenants Community” to teach residents how to use their energy system and ease their concerns.

Paula Temrick, conflict coordinator at the meetings, says the program is in line with the Village’s principles of community and sustainability, and the occupants are invited to contribute to the vision.

Workshops and in-suite tours ran from April to Nov. 2012 with guidance from architect and sustainability coordinator Sharon Halfnight. Residents learned how to save energy by adjusting their apartment’s thermostats, or monitoring their energy consumption level in real time on a screen located in their unit.

Together they also created an onsite community roof garden, initiated get-together meetings with a social sustainability theme and founded a tenant advisory committee to help manage difficult relationships between residents.

Ellis, who attended program meetings, admitted that she initially had difficulty in operating the heating system in her condo. Other tenants had similar complaints and were also frustrated by their heating and cooling systems, adding to some of the tension aired at meetings.

“I’m glad we are doing this program because I don’t understand how this building works,” Ellis says. “I didn’t know where to go for help.”

According to Temrick, this program not only helped smooth tensions, but also brought residents together to make their building work, and this is exactly what architects had in mind when they designed this area. The Village will continue to try to educate residents in adapting to new types of technology.

“This is a project that lies close to my heart, because it encompasses green re-orientation in our society as well as in our buildings,” says Halfnight.