It was so tantalizingly close, but then the Ontario Government’s cuts to social housing last fall wiped them off the drawing board. Two high-rise buildings, that would have generated their own light, power, heating, and cooling from methane produced by their own waste.
In bricks and mortar, the project’s architect and engineer planned to incorporated a vision of a more harmonious way of living. Where people would be more self-reliant, less dependent on non-renewable resources, more engaged with each other.
Even though the buildings are not going up, what might have been is still worth looking at. They would have been models of sustainable living.
They were to have been built at Steeles and Bathurst Street, in Vaughan, at the edge of Metropolitan Toronto, one high-rise for B’nai Brith, the other for Ahmidiyya Movement in Peace, a Palestinian group.
Each would have had 125 units, that ranged from one-bedroom to four-bedroom suites, to accommodate a total of about 600 people. They would have had a mixture of tenants: seniors, low income families, and families with ample incomes.
There would have been greenhouses on the roofs. Suites would have been designed for live-in work and so, at ground level, they would have had direct access to the street. Parking allocations would have been reduced in the expectation that car pools and home deliveries would be organized. Recyclable garbage would have been collected and sorted by tenants to a much higher degree than is done with blue boxes.
But the breakthrough for the Toronto area would have been the methane system. All the organic waste from the two buildings would have gone to a methane digester, a single tank about the size of ten parking spots, floor to ceiling, in a parking garage.
Each kitchen sink would have had a garbeurator installed so that kitchen wastes, in addition to sewage, would have flowed into the tank. However, this would have met only 10 per cent of the digester’s capacity. The other 90 per cent would have come from green grocers who otherwise would have sent their waste cuttings to landfills.
In the digester, anaerobic bacteria — bacteria that live without oxygen — would digest the organic material and breathe out methane. The methane would be pumped out of the digester, pressurized, and used to fire a turbine that produced electricity. Heat from the turbine would be used to generate hot water for the buildings and to provide heating in the winter and cooling in the summer. The summer air conditioning would use heat to produce cooling in the same way as a propane refrigerator does.
This isn’t a new idea, says Greg Allen of the engineering firm Allen Associates of Toronto. « In India, cow manure is used to produce methane as the country’s main fuel for cooking. And in Europe, there are municipal methane systems that service entire communities.’’
What excites him, and Toronto architect Douglas B. Pollard who designed the buildings, is that when your goal is to achieve harmony and interplay among all parts of a project, « it’s often the synergy among the parts that provides the greatest opportunity for viability and sustainability.’’ In other words, solutions come out of the search for harmony.
« I look at our cities,’’ says Allen, « and the amount of effort that goes into denying life astounds me. Everything we do is at war with natural systems. Even our definition of clean water is dead water — water in which nothing can live.’’
Buildings have been defined by linearity, he says. External forces are looked at separately, and regarded as threats. So the question becomes, how do you protect against cold, against heat, against interior stale air, against changing weather. It’s a mentality focusing on against, against, against….
« The whole idea of getting rid of externalities, is foreign to nature,’’ says Allen. « We build entire societies that are based on the idea of the static. The unchanging. That’s how we fight nature.’’
The starting point for Allen and Pollard is to design buildings that benefit from diversity and change, instead of shutting them out. How can they utilize natural systems? How can they strengthen communities in and around their projects?
They see things in a different way, and so they design things in a different way. And their way holds great promise.