The high cost of owning glass condos

By on November 7, 2014

One day soon, we will rue the unrestrained development of energy wasting high rise condos in our major cities.

It’s almost criminal that in a time when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is sounding the alarm over the consequences of escalating fossil fuel consumption, cranes in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and other major cities are erecting structures that are not only grossly inefficient, but will also compound the need to generate massive amounts of energy to get through both chilly winter nights and blazing summer days.

Some consumers choose condos because they offer a no-fuss downtown lifestyle. Just pay your monthly condo fee and fuggetaboutit. Realtors, however, will tell you a lot of buyers turn to condos because they have been priced out of the single-family market and are looking for a lower cost alternative.

They’re drawn to modern looking structures with floor-to-ceiling walls of glass that give them at times panoramic views. Those same glass walls, however, have next to no thermal insulation, turning the buildings into energy hogs.

A panel of architects who recently discussed the problem on a national radio talk show agreed these glass skins are unlikely to stand the test of time; in fact, one predicted that these buildings will need to be refitted in as few as five years. (Others put the number as high as 35 years.) One of the unknown variables, architects and engineers say, is just how long the seals around the glass skins will last.

Typically, the glass panels are lined with thin pieces or rubber and/or silicon to stop the elements from creeping in. But in a northern climate, the freeze/thaw cycle will accelerate the rate of decay. If you’ve ever had a thermal window in your house fog up, you know what I’m talking about.

It is estimated that fully one-half of the energy consumed in Canada is used to heat and cool our buildings. The rate of consumption could be cut substantially by resorting to readily available technology, but we’re not demanding it be done. Imagine the meaningful reductions in greenhouse gasses that could be made by simply getting serious about curbing the scandalous waste in our buildings.

Instead, we are doing the opposite.

Developers will tell you that they construct buildings the way they do is because they sell. It’s true that consumers are drawn to the modern look of glass-enclosed structures, but it’s also true that developers like glass houses because they are cheaper to build.

Cheaper initially, that is. Experts fear that will not be the case over the long run. They expect glass structures will require major maintenance much earlier in their life cycle than structures built with traditional brick and mortar. If, as predicted, entire walls of glass will have to be replaced, the cost will be astronomical.

There are two obvious implications for the poor owners of these units: 1) as word spreads about the costs associated with these units, their market value will fall; 2) those mostly condos fees will grow as crippling surcharges are added to cover the cost of wall repairs.

This may leave you wondering where our governments are in all this. The short answer is behind the times and struggling to catch up.

Though he is less alarmist about the future of glass towers than others, Toronto architect Peter Clewes was recently quoted as saying, “I think Canada has one of the weakest energy codes anywhere in the Western world.”

Vancouver seems to be at the forefront, requiring buildings in rezonings to score between 60 and 79 points on the LEED Gold standard, an international system used to grade a building’s excellence in sustainability.

In New York, an organization known as the Urban Green Council has gone a step further, pushing for a separate energy efficiency standard for building exteriors.

Governments need to get moving. There are two compelling reasons to impose stricter standards on the cladding of high-rises. The first is the virtuous argument: It the will help us fight global warming. The second reason, however, is much more grassroots: If we don’t require better structures now, there are going to be some massive repair bills in the future.  -TROYMEDIA

Doug Firby is Editor-in-Chief of Troy Media and National Affairs columnist.

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