Apartments and condos are becoming too hot to live in. How can we fix them?


Apartments and condos are becoming too hot to live in. How can we fix them?

By Cherry Tsoi | Opinion | July 16th 2021 12-15 minutes

Heat pumps being installed on an apartment building.

Like many who suffered through the late June heat in British Columbia, Peter Cox didn’t sleep.

It was too hot in his Fairview condo, nestled in a leafy area of the city where Vancouver General Hospital and many other health buildings sit. His unit has sliding glass doors, poor ventilation and no AC unit. After a couple of 34 C nights with fans blowing warm air over his hot body (he had a thermometer in his room to keep track), he took refuge at a hotel with a cooling system.

Meanwhile, a stone’s throw from Cox’s building, Vancouver General Hospital was filled with people who weren’t so fortunate. The health system was crashing under the effects of record-breaking heat. More than 700 people died during the heat wave, ambulance wait times stretched on for hours, and doctors called on public health to do better.

It left Cox, along with people across B.C., rethinking the places they live and how much danger existing homes could pose if climate change makes heat waves the summer norm in Canada. Of those who died during the heat wave, it is presumed that many lived in homes without proper cooling mechanisms to keep them safe. Vancouver-area homes aren’t built for extreme weather of any kind. City planners have long known that, but the deadly heat dome intensified the scramble for individuals and cities to find solutions.

Rural residents also feel the heat, but not to the same degree as those in city centres. Vancouverites, Torontonians and Montrealers live in “urban heat islands,” formed when concrete and asphalt replace grass and dirt. Buildings and concrete absorb radiation and release it as heat, making cities up to 12 degrees hotter than their rural counterparts. Heat is also more intense in apartments and condos than houses, which usually allow cross breezes and have more shade.

Apartment buildings without air conditioning can be renovated to become less warm with retrofits, such as cooling shutters installed on exterior windows. And electric heat pumps, which act as heaters in the winter and air conditioners in the summer, can replace carbon-emitting furnaces and boilers that burn natural gas. Heat pumps vary in price, but can cost up to $10,000.

We know how to cool homes, and in turn save lives, but the question of who is responsible for making it happen remains. In Cox’s case, as a condo owner responsible for his own unit, he did some research on heat pumps. He asked a contractor to assess the exterior of his building and made plans to purchase one of his own. However, he got shut down by his strata over concerns about the integrity of the building’s rainscreening, as well as esthetics.

“Although the appliance in your unit may be able to be disguised, if there were several owners and renters that would want to follow suit, the appearance of the exterior of the building would be altered in an unattractive way,” reads an email from the strata.

Cox explains heat pump installations require a compressor, housed in a white box on the balcony, and one refrigerant line, which would be six to eight feet long, going up and into the wall, connecting the outdoor system to his indoor unit.

“For me, esthetic considerations should be so far down the list that it's ridiculous that it's even brought up,” said Cox, who runs a carpet recycling company.

Rural residents also feel the heat, but not to the same degree as city dwellers, who live in “urban heat islands,” formed when concrete and asphalt replace grass and dirt. Who's responsibility is it to update buildings to make them safer?

“The drilling through walls (would be) professionally done. It's not like it's DIY. I'm not going to Home Depot to rent a drill to do it myself.”

Condominium owners have hoops to jump through as they search for ways to adapt their homes to heat. However, renters like Christine Butler have even fewer options.

Like Cox, Butler was in a third floor walk-up during the heat wave. Her suite, covered in plants and books neatly arranged on a shelf in her living room, is nestled between two north-facing corner apartments — there’s not a breeze to be had.

Butler, who emphasizes she doesn’t want to point the finger specifically at her property company, says she doesn’t think her building will see upgrades like heat pumps or retrofits. It leaves the work-from-home counsellor, who lives in her suite with her five-year-old daughter and white German shepherd, wondering what’s next.

During the heat wave, Butler was lucky to have another place to go. After sweating it out for a night, her daughter waking up every hour from the discomfort, she went to her sister’s basement for the duration of the heat dome.

“I don't think building management in an old building like this would be able to invest in anything central. Whether they could be held responsible to do so, I’m not sure,” she said.

Christine Butler with her pup in their Vancouver rental apartment. Photo by Cloe Logan

Sean Pander, manager of the City of Vancouver's Green Building