How to outfit buildings to better handle hotter temperatures
Experts encourage homeowners and developers to reconsider long-term, efficient solutions
Brenda Perez thought B.C.'s recent heat wave would be nothing compared to summers in her native Mexico.
However, as her highrise condo — framed with floor-to-ceiling windows — baked in temperatures over 40 C, the 25-year-old's health began to suffer, as did her pets.
"I actually threw up. I woke up and I really felt like I was going to faint," said the Coquitlam resident.
Perez said her priority was her dog, Lola, and that they took nearly 12 showers daily just to stay cool, before she finally found a dog-sitter with air conditioning. But her two pet fish and frog died from the heat.
"It's changed my way of seeing the world," she said. "It was just a nightmare for me."
As southern B.C. baked under record-breaking, deadly temperatures for several days in late June, residents like Perez were left worrying about their living conditions — and whether these unprecedented events will become more common with climate change.
And while residents scrambled to find AC, experts suggest the scorching temperatures are an opportunity for homeowners and developers to reconsider how to better keep homes cool.
B.C.'s lack of AC and cooling
Many buildings in British Columbia lack cooling due to the province's milder climate expectations, explains Akua Schatz, a vice-president with the Canada Green Building Council, which focuses on sustainable building practices.
"So you end up with these, like, glass towers that are basically baking people, because they aren't designed to both have open airflow and really take in the heat," she said.
During last week's historic heat wave, some B.C. residents resorted to buying AC units and new HVAC systems — but most were quickly sold out.
Bobby Watt, owner of the Vancouver-based Watt HVAC, said he's seen nearly a 575 per cent increase in calls and website visits from people looking to install air conditioning since the temperatures began to climb.
On June 28, BC Hydro announced electricity demand in the province reached 8,516 megawatts. This shattered records by more than 600 megawatts, which equates to turning on 600,000 portable air conditioners.
However, portable AC units are the least energy efficient models on the market, BC Hydro notes, typically using 10 times more energy than a central AC system or heat pump.
Instead of focusing on a quick fix, like AC, experts outlined several long-term and more efficient infrastructure solutions.
The heat pump
Installing a heat pump can both cool and heat a home, unlike an air conditioner, said Schatz. When cooling, a heat pump extracts the heat out of your home and moves it back outside.
Heat pumps are up to 50 per cent more energy efficient compared to a typical window AC unit, according to BC Hydro. On average, they cost between $4,000 and $10,000 to purchase and install.
Radiant cooling uses special panels with chilled water to cool down walls and ceilings, explains Adam Rysanek, an assistant professor of environmental systems at the University of British Columbia.
A person's body heat then radiates toward those cool panels when they stand beside or underneath them.
Radiant cooling saves anywhere between 25 per cent to 60 per cent of energy compared to typical central air-conditioning systems, Rysanek said.
More midrise, less highrise
As a bigger picture option, experts say developers should reconsider the size and design of our buildings.
While sky-high views are popular, it would be wise to prioritize midrise buildings, says UBC-based urban design expert Patrick Condon.
"The buildings more easily shade each other, particularly on the west sides, and they're not so tall that you can't do simple things like growing trees," he explained.
On an urban planning level, Condon said, trees are essential for cooling because the air within the canopy of a tree can be up to five degrees lower.
Smaller floor-to-ceiling windows
When it comes to our buildings, experts also suggest having smaller floor-to-ceiling windows, allowing for more insulation on exterior walls.
Condos made of glass are poor insulators that allow both cool air to easily escape and that reflect hot air into the building, according to BC Hydro.
'A pretty daunting task'
While these solutions are more energy efficient, experts acknowledge they are not quick fixes, particularly for older buildings.
"Whether you're in a duplex, or whether you're in a strata that's 250 units, it's a pretty daunting task," said Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium Home Owners Association of B.C.
Gioventu agrees that heat pumps and major upgrades are the best solution. While not every tenant will be able to afford retrofits, he says property managers and strata councils can prioritize cooling solutions and ask questions like: Does the building have electrical capacity for a heat pump? Will retrofitting cause future disasters? How will it be maintained?
As for Perez, when she finally felt a cooling breeze as temperatures subsided some, it was an emotional moment.
"I started crying — like, I was so happy," she said.
To prepare for future heat waves, Perez plans to purchase a portable AC unit when one is available. But if her heat-related discomfort continues, she says her next step is to now consider moving to a building with a better cooling system.