Building a More Resilient Toronto - Lloyd Alter, managing editor of Tree Hugger, gives engaging talk at GN 21 meeting

Lloyd Alter, editor of the sustainability website Tree Hugger and an architect and sustainable design instructor at Ryerson University, gave a very engaging talk at our GN21 meeting in March.  He discussed good resilient design and especially emphasized the wisdom embedded in the design of old buildings. 

He began by pointing out that high density in the form of tall buildings is not the answer, just as much as urban sprawl is not the answer.  Instead he suggested we aim for a “Goldilocks” level of density – “not too dense, not too spread out” - something like the very liveable St. Lawrence Market area with buildings of medium height.  He said we have lots of opportunities to densify in this manner in Toronto, for instance along the Danforth and along St. Clair Ave., both of which are well served by transit.

Next, he introduced his idea of Heritage Urbanism.  He listed off four characteristics that old buildings have that we should be striving to ensure in all our buildings:  loveability, durability, flexibility and frugality.  He then showed us wonderful photos of old buildings with “wise” features such as awnings, porches, and vine-covered walls to keep buildings cool in the summer.  He explained how the various double-hung windows in a home can be opened at the top or bottom or both to ingeniously adjust natural ventilation.  I didn’t know how to do this, which supported his claim that many of us no longer know how to operate our buildings.        

I also learned that at one time all bathrooms had to have a window for ventilation under the Building Code.  Think about it:  when you go to someone’s house and it’s old and you go to the washroom, there’s a window.  This requirement was written out of the Code when mechanical fans came along.  This is too bad from a resilience point of view because the good ol’ window would have allowed you to continue ventilating your washroom through a power outage.

Lloyd Alter sees contemporary solutions in many of these old-fashioned practices.  Electric cars and “smart” homes are not the answer.  We have replaced many of the excellent passive features (e.g., natural ventilation) of past buildings with electricity-dependent systems that use energy (e.g. air conditioning) and do not necessarily lead to more comfort.  The instructor in him explained that indoor comfort is a result of a combination of the right mix of temperature, humidity and air movement.  Long ago, we would have made simple adjustments in our homes to achieve ideal comfort.  Today, however, we have controls that we don’t necessarily understand and that track only one variable anyway (e.g., temperature), and we are consequently often left less than comfortable. 

I was awed by the photo Lloyd showed of the late Pennsylvania Station in New York City.  It had glass ceilings that let in light as well as a glass floor that let light into the floor below.  He also talked about how old buildings when seen from above were all letter shaped (i.e., U-shaped, H-shaped, E-shaped, C-shaped or O-shaped).  This was because all bathrooms had to have windows, but also because they wanted to increase natural light.  Use of natural light saves on energy costs and also makes occupants happier.  He showed us a photo of prism glass, which is a special glass that diverts light rays so that the light spreads into the interior at a wide range of angles.  He has only seen it in one place in Toronto – the St. Clair Galleria in our ward!  


Lloyd Alter ended his talk by taking us back to the difficult days of World War II, when everyone conserved to support the war effort. The posters of that era called for many of things being advocated again these days:  walk more, grow your own food, don’t waste food, can your harvest, carshare, have a staycation.  He told us that he is currently eating a 19th century diet of what’s locally available; though he’s tiring of root vegetables, he’s looking forward to spring. 

During Q&A, a couple of interesting discussions ensued.  First, someone brought up the need for affordable and joyful retirement housing, perhaps a “frat house” for seniors, instead of the only option that is available today – pricey and stale retirement homes.  Lloyd mentioned that he is working on a vertical “commune for seniors” and mentioned the co-housing movement that originated in Denmark, where people get together and develop a home together to live in. 

Lloyd also brought up a great idea that I think more people should consider.  He said that with his old solid brick house, he decided that instead of adding more insulation (which could lead to condensation problems and also loss of its thermal mass advantage), he would renovate his home into a duplex.  That way more people would live in the house at less energy cost per capita!  Ingenious! 

Finally, people asked what he would push for in the upcoming municipal election.  He said that making Toronto more cycling and pedestrian friendly is key.  He emphasized the importance of walkability.  Streetcars and LRTs help because of their frequent stops.  Apparently our neighbourhood’s walkability (see Walkscore) is very very high.   With that, our meeting was over and most of us walked (or TTC’ed) home!