Sierra Club Canada by Diane Beckett 27 October 2015

See also: Interview of Diane Beckett

Amid all the urgent priorities on Prime Minister-Designate Justin Trudeau’s to-do list, an improbable item caught my eye last week.

Just a couple of days after last week’s federal election, Margaret Trudeau—who famously described the PM’s official residence as “the crown jewel of the federal penitentiary system”—told CBC News that she didn’t see her son and his family moving back into 24 Sussex before the building gets some long-overdue renovations. “24 Sussex is in need—has been in need since I was there 40 years ago—of major infrastructure repair, and it simply hasn’t been done,” she told(link is external) CBC Radio’s Information Morning in Fredericton. “Not decor, not fancy stuff—just plumbing and roofs and all the things that keep a house standing.”

By last night, the decision had been made. CBC carried the news (link is external)that the PM and his family will move into Rideau Cottage, on the grounds of the Governor General’s residence “until further notice.”

Margaret Trudeau’s comments resonated because I’ve seen the condition of 24 Sussex first-hand. But if the work is going to be done, it means the Prime Minister has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get it done right. Buildings accounted for 30% of Canada’s energy use in 2011, according to Natural Resources Canada(link is external), and the best time for an energy retrofit is when major renovations are already scheduled.

Which points to the opportunity to turn the official residence into a showcase for Canada’s renewed commitment to a low-carbon future.

Visiting 24 Sussex

I got to visit 24 Sussex Drive more than a decade ago, when Aline Chrétien opened the building up for an annual charity open house tour. The rumour at the time was that she had taken the step so the Canadian public could see how badly the home was in need of repairs and maintenance.

The tour left a lasting impression.

I saw the cheap, plastic sheeting over the cheap patio door that partly obscured the stunning view overlooking the Ottawa River. I remember the off-centre chandelier in the dining room—where visiting dignitaries are hosted for official gatherings—apparently because a long-ago renovation that shifted the room’s dimensions. I took away the general sense that the whole place was worn out and run down.

The general impression for visitors: That Canada had not just become a hostile, obstructive force on the world scene, as was the case over the last decade. What was once an elegant, historic building at 24 Sussex delivered the message that our country is tacky, faded, and out of date.

An Audacious Plan

In 2008, the Auditor General reported that the residence hadn’t seen major renovations in 50 years, concluding that repairs were urgently needed. “The report found the windows, plumbing, electrical systems, heating and air conditioning at 24 Sussex Drive are all in poor to critical condition,” CBC reported. “The home also has no fire sprinklers and contains asbestos, which has been linked to disease, including lung cancer.”

But any chance at a solution was lost when the home’s previous occupants learned they would have to vacate the premises for 12 to 15 months while the work was done. The prime minister’s office responded in 2008 that the boss “had no intention of moving out of the official residence until his term was up.”

Well, his term is up. And in the meantime:

  • Solar electricity costs have plummeted.
  • Low-carbon analysts now argue that every building on earth must be net-zero(link is external)—meaning that they produce at least as much energy as they consume—by 2050 or sooner. Work by Architecture 2030(link is external) shows the target isn’t just desirable. It’s doable.

So what if Prime Minister-Designate Trudeau declared that 24 Sussex will be renovated as a net-zero heritage retrofit?

With most of the major infrastructure costs already built into the renovation itself, what if the designers set out to hit the net-zero threshold with improvements that would pay themselves back in energy savings over the life of the building?

“It may be that the improvements in energy efficiency would not only pay back handsomely, but actually reduce capital costs,” says one of Canada’s leading low-carbon architects, Greg Allen. “Depending, of course, on how elaborate the HVAC system would be.”

Why It Matters

24 Sussex Drive is not the most important item on the new government’s agenda, nor even on its energy and climate agenda. But symbols matter, and if they get it right, this symbol will matter a lot.

Think of the lasting, iconic impact of a heritage retrofit done right, a building that has great meaning in Canada’s history and could become an emblem for the country’s low-carbon future.

Imagine the PM showing up at a make-or-break United Nations climate summit in Paris with firm greenhouse gas reduction targets to announce (we’re still working on that), and the promise that he will soon be ready to host his international peers in the world’s most energy-smart official residence.

“On behalf of 35 million Canadians, we’re back,” Trudeau said October 20, in his first message(link is external) to world leaders. What better way to reinforce the point?

Diane Beckett
Interim Executive Director