The other day, I went to visit one of North America’s first “net zero” multi-unit residential dwellings — a three-story apartment building in the east end of Montreal that generates all the energy it needs over the course of a year. The development is called “Abondance,” and it’s the product of a young, ambitious architect named Christopher Sweetnam-Holmes.


Abondance was conceived as part of a national program launched a few years back by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (the CMHC – the government-owned corporation that insures and regulates Canadian mortgages and is one of the reasons why Canadians dodged the worst excesses of the American housing bubble). The program was called “EQuilibrium,” and it called on home builders across the country to build model homes to demonstrate the market viability of radical changes in energy production and efficiency at household scale.

I wind up in a great many conversations about what exactly sustainability is, and I usually find myself steering the conversation away from technocratic definitions and talk of technological innovation to discussions of process, structural bias and paradigm. It’s not the technology, I like to say, it’s the technique. Our current technique is biased toward resource-intensive, non-renewable, wasteful, lowest-first-cost approaches lacking in resilience and durability. The sustainable technique favors resource conservation, renewable materials, waste reduction – resilient solutions that pay off their higher upfront costs over a long and frugal life cycle.


Sweetnam-Holmes’ Abondance development is an elegant example of how sustainability reorders priorities in ways that are hard to see from within the confines of our current paradigm. It’s not a conventional Montreal apartment block with solar panels on the roof; it’s a thorough rethinking of the conventions of the conventional apartment building top to bottom, often using the same materials and processes but in much different ways.


Sweetnam-Holmes gave me a tour of the project the other day – first the three-unit Phase 1 building, in which he lives, then the still-under-construction 17-unit apartment block next door. Abondance stands in a working-class neighborhood just south of downtown Montreal. I was following the beacon of the site’ s address on Google Maps on my iPhone, and the building was so inconspicuous I walked right by it. If I was further back from it, I might’ve spied the silhouette of the solar array on the roof, but otherwise it was a brick low-rise seamlessly integrated into the rest of the block.


The really radical thing about Abondance is not the solar PV and hot-water heaters, not the geothermal heat pumps in the basement that warm and cool it or the wireless master kill switch at the door of each unit that lets you turn off all the lights and everything sucking juice on “sleep” mode in one poke as you leave. No, what’s radical about Abondance is how little energy it needs – something like 23 percent of the Montreal average – and how it reduced its required load.


The main answer: insulation. Lots of it. More than double the norm, including exterior layers of spray-foam insulation to avoid heat loss at the wooden studs. Abondance isn’t an energy-generating marvel so much as an obsessive experiment in R-value and what they call “tightness” in the building trade. Abondance takes in heat very well, and it traps it zealously. It’s ridiculously well-insulated box masquerading as a cleantech showcase.

Now, radical experiments in insulation are of course about as sexy as a fuzzy old wool sweater, so it’s no wonder that we spend too much time using sustainability as a synonym for renewable. If you were showing off to the neighbors, would you point to the foam in the walls or the panels on the roof? Still, in the end it’s about the technique, not the gear. One of the most quietly awesome things about Sweetnam-Holmes’ apartment, for example, is an incidental afterthought of a detail, a thing so far down anyone’s green wish list I’d actually never heard mention of it before. What most impressed me was the drying cabinet.


When Sweetnam-Holmes used the phrase, my reaction was as I imagine yours now is: The what? Apparently these are somewhat common in northern Europe: drying cabinets. Big wardrobe-like spaces that suck in the apartment’s already-heated air and circulate it over racks of clothes hung inside to speed up the air-drying process.


In the case of Abondance, each unit was outfitted with a good-sized utility closet into which a high-efficiency stacked washer and dryer had been installed. The building’s so tight, though, that it needs a pretty serious ventilation system to keep enough new air cycling through. Sweetnam-Jones had his contractors route the outflow of stale interior air through the utility closets and installed clothes racks, just so that little bit of heated air could be re-used for clothes drying before being blown outside. He told me he still uses his conventional dryer often as not, but when he wants to, he can dry most of his clothes just by hanging them up inside the closet in less than an hour.


This is how sustainability works: You start to see every useful thing, every application of energy, as a valuable commodity to be hoarded. You insulate like crazy, tighten the building into a marvel of efficiency, use the earth’s heat to warm the space and the sun’s rays to warm the water and all the rest – and then you capture that little bit of thermal energy in your air outflow vents and you blow it over your clothes to dry them. Like I said: it’s not the technology – a vent, after all, is not the kind of thing we generally mean by technology. It’s the technique.


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