Written By: Arlene Oak, Associate Professor, Department of Human Ecology, University of Alberta & Sara Dorow, Chair, Department of Sociology, University of Alberta
Opened in 2018, the non-profit North Glenora Townhomes housing development, comprised of 16 three- and five-bedroom townhomes, is one of Canada’s first and largest net-zero, multi-family residential developments. The story behind this award-winning project is a multi-faceted tale of collaboration, innovation, and environmental and social sustainability.
The impetus for the development came from a local Presbyterian church. Through a combination of dedicated effort and fortuitous timing, Westmount Presbyterian partnered with the Edmonton-based Right at Home Housing Society and Habitat Studios, a leader in the design and construction of “green” homes. The congregation agreed to have their large and environmentally inefficient, 1950s church building demolished and replaced by a smaller, net-zero church (that now also contains a daycare centre). The removal of the original building and adjacent parking space freed up land on which the townhouses could be built – townhouses that feature an advanced, eco-friendly design through the inclusion of geothermal heating and solar panels for electricity.
The families who rent the housing are all recent refugee families to Edmonton, identified and supported through a partnership with a local non-profit organization. As such, along with featuring advanced, eco aspects of home building, the project also supports social innovation through community development. Provision of this family-friendly, secure housing has not only brought stability for its residents in a market short of affordable family housing, but also allowed the neighbourhood elementary school across the street to remain open through new enrollments.
The North Glenora development is considered a success by its creators, occupants, design critics, and the press. At the same time, any housing project that aims to meet the multi-pronged tests of affordability, inclusivity, community relevance, material and aesthetic appeal, low footprint, and energy savings raises the question: what are the trade-offs and limitations? This and other questions are being explored through an interdisciplinary research project based at the UofA.
The research project –initiated by professors in the Departments of Sociology and Human Ecology – includes interviews conducted with the project’s main institutional actors (church members, builder, non-profit partners), townhome occupants, community members, and others, alongside an analysis of documents and other media.
The research explores the obstacles and opportunities that have been, and continue to be, encountered in the North Glenora project, with the aim to better understand the complex social and material collaborations that form the background and ongoing contexts for the development and use of innovative and affordable community housing.