43 years in the making: The Sundance Housing Cooperative’s journey to net-zero

The Sundance Housing Cooperative has been a leader in affordable housing, community living and environmental responsibility for more than 40 years. Now, Sundance is leading the largest panelised Deep Energy Retrofit ever undertaken in Canada.

Inspired by a Dutch technique known as Energiesprong, this approach to a Deep Energy Retrofit uses cutting-edge imaging technology to design prefabricated panels. These panels slash a building’s emissions to near net-zero levels, taking just weeks to install over the existing structure with minimal disruption to occupants.

The Sundance Housing Co-op is located in Edmonon's river valley, one of the largest swathes of urban parkland in North America

The co-op took the Sundance Deep Energy Retrofit project from concept to shovels in the ground thanks to the hard work of a core group of volunteers, first-rate membership engagement and some strategic partnerships.

It was forward-thinking volunteers whose vision for affordable housing, environmental sustainability and community brought the Sundance Housing Cooperative to life in 1978. Forty-three years later, nearly 100 members plus 35 children and boarders living in 78 units call Sundance home. Nearly 40 per cent of Sundance members have lived in the co-op for more than 20 years, and some have been there since the beginning. All members have a voice and a vote in major co-op decisions.

“The whole idea of co-ops is that you make decisions together that affect everybody in your community in a positive way. It’s important that everybody who belongs to the community has a say. The more people who get engaged and who are part of the conversation, the better the decisions are that we make,” says Beth Nilsen, one of the co-op’s founders.

In 2013, these same principles inspired the co-op’s volunteer members to set up Joint Meetings of representatives of Sundance’s Maintenance and Finance Committees and turn their expertise to long-term planning for the co-op’s future. By 2015, this ad hoc planning committee had focused on Sundance Main, the name for the co-op’s 59 original units constructed in 1978. The committee developed a feasible long-term vision for Sundance’s buildings, a vision that would serve members for decades to come and help Sundance do its part in the global effort to reduce carbon emissions. 

When the first co-op homes were built, founding members decided to go beyond the building code of the day with better insulation that made their units more energy efficient. Since then, Sundance has been an early adopter of water conservation and recycling, even creating a program that used revenue from recycling bottles and newspapers donated by members to purchase low-flush toilets for their units and rain barrels for the community’s gardens. 

“A number of Sundance members were very concerned about the need for climate action. We recognized the urgency of the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep the climate liveable and knew we wanted to do our part. By the time Canada committed to the Paris Agreement, we had already recognized that piecemeal renovations were not enough to address climate change. Instead, the co-op got behind a deep energy retrofit project to get us to net zero emissions,” says Sandy Susut, an original member of the committee.

With almost 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions coming from buildings, most of which will still be standing in 2050, Sundance membership knew long-term planning for its units had to align with Canada’s Paris Agreement commitment.

In 2016, Sundance applied to the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation (CMHC) Reno/Retrofit program to do a Deep Energy Retrofit. The Communitas Group helped Sundance prepare the application. Though CMHC did not approve the funding request, Sundance volunteers did not lose sight of their vision for a Deep Energy Retrofit. The same year, Northern Alberta Institute for Technology students and Peter Amerongen, a green building leader in Alberta, completed the Sundance Co-op Townhouse Energy Retrofit Feasibility Study. 

Sundance formalised its long-term planning efforts by creating the Sundance Planning and Development Committee (SPDC) in 2017.  Members include Jean Ure, Sandy Susut and Beth Nilsen. Sandy Kendrick, Alex Jacob and Margaret Jacob were on the committee until 2019. Erin Michie contributed from 2018 to 2019 and Don Purcell from 2019 to 2021. Rod Twigge joined the effort in 2019 and Elsa Robinson in 2021.

“We wouldn’t be doing the retrofit without the committee. We are the interface between the co-op’s collective decision making and project management. The committee is an amazing example of collaboration and cooperation, bringing a wide array of life skills and experience to the multiple aspects of this retrofit. How would I describe the collective contributions of this group? We ask a lot of ourselves. And we’ve surprised ourselves by how much we’ve been able to accomplish through collective problem solving,” says Jean Ure, who has chaired the committee since it started.

SPDC contracted The Communitas Group to undertake a feasibility study and engaged ReNü Engineering to undertake a Building Condition Assessment. This assessment ultimately led to committee members asking these questions: Were they satisfied with Band-Aid solutions that, while less costly, would merely maintain and upgrade their buildings? Was the goal to bring members’ homes up to the current building code aspirational enough? Was it time to dream big and undertake a project that would preserve Sundance’s ability to provide housing for mixed-income members for another generation by making Sundance ready for a net-zero future?

In collaboration with The Communitas Group, SPDC took the ReNü assessments and financial options to its members and posed the same questions in a series of workshops. Members voted to refinance the mortgage through the CMHC Loan Repayment Flexibility Program and allocate the savings to a retrofit fund. 

The Co-op continued actively pursuing funding solutions to make its units environmentally sustainable. The SPDC worked with Peter Amerongen to apply for Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) funding in 2018. 

In January 2019, members voted in favour of an Energiesprong-inspired Deep Energy Retrofit pilot. Sundance received word its funding was approved just a few weeks later - NRCan was committing $2.5 million for Sundance to pilot Deep Energy Retrofit technology on two units and future retrofits on the remaining 57 units in Sundance Main. The total cost of the retrofit at completion will be nearly $10.5 million. 

Within months, Sundance had contracted Butterwick Projects to do the Deep Energy Retrofit and The Communitas Group to manage the project. Construction started in March 2019. It was necessary to get an extension on the lease for the City-owned land to obtain long term refinancing. After presentations from SPDC, Edmonton City Council offered a 60-year lease extension to 2098 at no additional cost, conditional upon satisfactory evidence of the completion of the Deep Energy Retrofit.

Securing the NRCan funding was a monumental step for Sundance and its members. Sundance continues to apply for funding for the Deep Energy Retrofit to keep housing charges affordable. 

Besides supporting the vision and the significant financial contribution required, Sundance members made all major decisions. From extending the land lease to mortgage refinancing, from selecting the project contractor to picking the colour palette for the development, from agreeing to undertake an electrical upgrade to installing solar panels, SPDC made sure members voted on all major decisions. Maintaining such a high level of member engagement required numerous workshops, countless reports and a rock-solid approach to consensus building. Today, Sundance is managing the project, working side-by-side with Butterwick Projects and Communitas as the construction progresses. 

But for Sundance, completing the work isn’t enough. The co-op wants to inspire others to do Deep Energy Retrofits. Sundance intends to help pave the way for a Canadian movement for panelised Deep Energy Retrofits by sharing what they’ve learned with other co-ops, housing associations and anyone else who may be interested in making their homes ready for net-zero.

Sundance’s Deep Energy Retrofit shows the cooperative housing movement in action. Passionate, capable volunteer leaders who are co-op members themselves work alongside all Sundance members to improve their homes and community while putting into practice an innate belief that communities can promote a liveable climate future by working together.