Landmark Reframed Initiative demonstrates how deep building retrofits are doable and necessary

Designs include energy and carbon reductions plus beyond-energy benefits making homes healthier, safer, climate resilient and more affordable to heat and cool

Image of Medewiwin apartments

Medewiwin Apartments, Victoria, BC. Photo: Reframed Lab Design Team.

VANCOUVER — New research from the Pembina Institute demonstrates how Canada’s residential housing sector could deliver significant carbon emissions reductions, and why business-as-usual won’t get us there.

Today, Pembina’s Buildings team announced the outcomes of the Reframed Lab, a unique design process representing a major step forward in exploring pathways to achieving sustainable and efficient living spaces. Reframed brought together more than 70 professionals in six design teams dedicated to reimagining the retrofits of multi-unit residential buildings for seniors, people with disabilities and low-income households, targeting substantial energy and carbon emissions reductions, while prioritizing a range of beyond-energy benefits such as climate adaptation and resilience, and occupant health and well-being.

In a stark contrast to business-as-usual retrofits, the Reframed design teams estimate deep retrofits can cut energy use by up to 90%, which underscores the comprehensive opportunity deep retrofits present for driving down energy demand and cutting utility costs in the midst of an affordability crisis.

The design teams also proposed operational carbon emissions reductions ranging between 68% and 99%, a remarkable shift from the standard 3% to 55% reduction achieved when building owners replace systems at end-of-life, further highlighting the transformative potential of deep retrofits.

Deep retrofits are holistic energy efficiency home upgrades that also improve occupant thermal comfort and resilience to extreme weather events, while making housing more affordable by stabilizing utility costs for customers. This is achieved with selection of low-carbon construction materials, installation of highly efficient ttechnologies (like heat pumps) and integration with a supply of clean energy. Improved insulation, modern heating and cooling systems, and better ventilation can generate better indoor air quality and protect occupants from cold snaps and extreme heat. The Lab results were compared to business-as-usual “baseline” approaches that only maintain status quo operations.

The Reframed Lab was developed and hosted by the Pembina Institute in partnership with the City of Vancouver, the BC Non-Profit Housing Association, Metro Vancouver Housing Corporation (MVHC) and the Province of British Columbia (through BC Housing). Capital for the retrofits was provided by MVHC and BC Housing with assistance through the FortisBC Deep Energy Retrofit Pilot Program, CleanBC and the Canada Infrastructure Program. The cities of Vancouver, Victoria, North Vancouver, New Westminster, Coquitlam, and Kamloops have also been instrumental in moving these projects forward.

Design teams explored strategies and solutions to provide beyondenergy benefits such as:

  • Enhanced climate adaptation and climate resilience based on local climate risks such as wildfires, flooding, and extreme heat.

  • Seismic upgrades to meet three performance objectives, and roof structural upgrades. 

  • Prioritizing occupant health and wellbeing.

  • Minimizing on-site construction and disturbance to occupants.

  • Enabling the addition of new floor(s) and/or unit(s). 

  • Minimizing added lifecycle embodied carbon associated with the retrofit.

  • Optimizing on-site solar PV electricity generation and storage.

  • Exploring the feasibility of other onsite renewable energy generation technologies.

The Buildings team at the Pembina Institute expects the major learnings for procurement, design, and design processes to inform industry, government and utility strategies to scale up decarbonization of existing buildings and reach a self-supporting business case for deep retrofits. 

Report recommendations

  • Send a strong market signal: Introduce standards and regulations that raise the floor of minimum building performance to open markets for industry leaders, paving the way to market transformation and better outcomes for owners and occupants.
  • Lead through public procurement: All levels of government can help advance and stimulate market uptake of deep retrofits by adopting innovative procurement practices that link innovative design, construction, and operations for government-owned buildings.
  • Close the deep retrofit cost gap: Help build supply and demand for deep retrofits until the market reaches the economies of scale that lead to cost compression and a self-supporting business case for deep retrofits–e.g. through subsidies, grants, tax incentives.
  • Educate owners on the benefits of deep retrofits: Build demand for deep retrofits by helping owners understand the risk of short-sighted investments and the value of implementing holistic, long-term asset management plans that recognize key opportunities in component lifecycles.


“Congratulations goes to the design teams, building owners and Reframed Initiative partners for demonstrating deep retrofit pathways to help Canada achieve its climate targets.Through the Reframed Lab, participating teams illustrated that major energy and carbon emissions reductions are possible in buildings. Indeed, deep retrofits are the only climate action that also make Canadian homes healthy, safe, resilient and affordable to heat and cool.”

— Betsy Agar, Director, Buildings, Pembina Institute

“The collaborative work conducted through the Reframed Initiative highlights the environmental, social, and tenant experience benefits that are possible when we retrofit existing housing units. We’re pleased to further this conversation so that we can advance solutions that will lead to more energy-efficient, more comfortable, and greener homes for our tenants, and for the region as a whole.” 

– George V. Harvie, Chair, Metro Vancouver Board of Directors

“The Reframed Lab demonstrates the critical importance of deep energy retrofits in transforming B.C.’s energy future. By incorporating the diverse perspectives and expertise of many dedicated people and organizations working in this field, the study also demonstrates the tremendous progress we can make towards net zero by working together. From study to action, many of the recommendations are now part of our real-world pilot projects underway at four multi-unit residential buildings.”

— Joe Mazza, vice president, energy supply and resource development, FortisBC

Quick facts

  • Canada’s buildings sector is the third-largest contributor to the country’s emissions at 87 Mt CO2e (13% of the total). 

  • 80% of the buildings that will exist in 2050 are already built. Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) typically expects deep retrofits to achieve reductions in energy consumption by at least 50% to 70% and greenhouse gas emissions by 80% to 100%. 

  • To meet Canada's 2050 net zero emission goals, we need to retrofit approximately 600,000 homes each year.

Reframed Lab Results

  • Deep retrofit design proposals were estimated to cut total energy use by 44% to 90% compared to 3% to 41% for baseline upgrades. 

  • Deep retrofit design proposals achieved a projected median reduction of 68% in total energy use per dwelling unit. 

  • Heating energy consumption would be reduced through the deep retrofit design proposals by an estimated 58% to 93% compared to 3% to 56% reductions for baseline upgrades.

  • Annual operational carbon emissions estimates ranged between 68% to 99% through adoption of highly efficient heating systems and deep energy demand reductions; baseline upgrades would deliver only 3% to 55% reductions. 

Visit the Pembina Institute’s website to download a copy of Reframed Initiative: Outcomes and analysis A study of six best in class deep retrofit schematic designs

Sarah Snowdon
Senior Comms Lead, Pembina Institute

Report: Reframed Initiative: Outcomes and analysis -- A study of six best in class deep retrofit schematic designs.  


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