Credit: Ken Soble Tower / Codrin Talaba
The Ken Soble Tower, a 18-story public housing building in Ontario built 50 years ago, is an unlikely candidate for notable achievements in innovation. Simple, brutalist, utilitarian, and humble in its aims, it is one among thousands built during the post-war period to provide housing for low income and elderly residents. Today it is the largest residential building in the world to achieve Passive House certification, after a successful retrofitting led by ERA Architects and PCL Construction.
Passive House is a set of building standards meant to minimize energy usage and requirements through things like insulation and ventilation techniques. Like everything else related to energy efficiency, it is both extremely boring and extremely effective. The Ken Soble Tower retrofit resulted in a 94% reduction in greenhouse gas emission and a 91% reduction in HVAC energy demand. The amount of electricity required to heat and cool one of its units is the equivalent of three 100-watt lightbulbs. That amount of power could perhaps cool a shoebox with the average residential HVAC system in Florida.
Retrofitting doesn’t get the same splashy coverage as other technological innovations in the energy industry (Fuel cells! Miniature fusion! Smart grids!), but it offers far the biggest impact and ROI. It’s only fitting then that the retrofit of this big brutalist block—a post-war public housing tower, of all things—that reduced its energy usage by 91%, modernized 164 affordable residential units that are in short supply, and didn’t require anywhere near the inputs that new construction would’ve required, is the new poster child of building efficiency. You may not like it, but this is what peak efficiency looks like.
No drone? No problem.