Sakaw Terrace as an idea was first conceived by Raymond Swonek when the City of Edmonton offered GEF Seniors Housing a surplus school site in the Mill Woods area. After seeing the plot of land being offered for a new affordable seniors housing development, he immediately pictured a building unlike anything GEF had ever attempted before.
“Mill Woods was really lacking affordable seniors housing,” says Swonek. “There was a huge need for lodge rooms and apartments catered to seniors with a low- to moderate-income. With there being such a huge need in this neighbourhood, I knew I had to go big – bigger than anything we had ever built before.”
Ambitions ran high for Sakaw Terrace. As the project development team began fleshing out the details that would make up this new seniors complex, Swonek started seeing something even better than he initially imagined. The designers and architects made space for 70 lodge rooms and 88 apartments, two outdoor courtyards, a communal greenhouse, a theatre room, a salon, and underground and above ground parking. Swonek explains that deciding what to include in this new building wasn’t a decision solely made by any one group.
“For any new building project, we always go out to the community and make sure they’re involved with as much of the process as they want to be,” says Swonek. “The community talked a lot about how much they like their green space, so between the courtyards and the greenhouse, we made sure to include as much green space as we possibly could.”
GEF began appearing at farmer’s markets and other community events to help keep up the momentum for Sakaw Terrace, only to be met by lines of people hoping to get on the waiting list early. With excitement running high in the Mill Woods community for Sakaw Terrace, the project team knew it needed to deliver something special and started looking to its environmental impact assessments for more inspiration.
“We decided to own more of the environmental stewardship around a project like [Sakaw Terrace],” Swonek says. “It’s important that what we build is sustainable and that we reduce our carbon footprint without compromising on our principle to provide great housing options for seniors.”
The team looked at sustainability in two ways, with the first being environmental. Sakaw Terrace was built with a combined heat and power unity (CHP), which better uses natural gas utilities by using the power and hear generated more efficiently. Estimates show that the CHP will reduce carbon gas emissions by 530 tons a year.
The other side of Sakaw Terrace’s sustainability is the financial side, which is helped by the CHP offering a savings of around $80,000 that GEF can reallocate to operations and services for seniors. But Swonek explains that they wanted to take financial sustainability a step further with a housing model he typically only sees in Europe.
“Sakaw Terrace is the first building in Alberta to offer a mixed-income model for housing in Western Canada,” Swonek says. “Thirty per cent of the suites in Sakaw Terrace are going to be offered to any senior, regardless of income, at a market value. We can then use the profits from the market value suites to keep funding the operations at Sakaw Terrace, making it a completely self-sustaining building.”
Though the financial side of sustainability is appealing to GEF Seniors Housing (especially being a not-for-profit), Swonek’s more proud of the communal aspects of these innovations.
“What our efforts amount to is making Sakaw Terrace more accessible to the 20,000 seniors currently living in the Mill Woods area,” Swonek says. “As people age, they want to stay in their communities. They want to be close to their families, friends, and the services they’re comfortable with. At the end of the day, the people have to come first. This is going to be someone’s home, and that needs to stay front of mind before anything else.”
On the afternoon of July 31, 2012, GEF Seniors Housing faced one of its worst building fires in over 50 years it has been an organization. The Canora Gardens building’s second floor caught fire after a new tenant moving in put a cardboard box on a hot stove element. One tenant lost their life in the fire due to smoke inhalation. GEF Seniors Housing’s Director of Facility Management Doug Kitlar explains that getting the call about a building fire is always unpredictable.
“It’s policy that whoever on the team is closest to the building when the fire call comes in has to go directly to the site to begin assessing the situation,” Kitlar explains. “Ed Campion, one of our project managers, made it to the site before I did. The whole drive over, I was looking over the horizon of buildings and I could see the black smoke billowing out and all I could think was that we were in trouble.”
The suite where the fire started and the suites next to it had extensive fire damage and the smoke damage all along the second floor was clearly visible. Kitlar says that while working with the adjusters, there was ample concern for the water damage to the floors below the fire and more smoke damage in the walls above the fire. Canora Gardens’ original construction had plenty of fire protection between the suites, but no smoke protection (as is the standard for modern buildings). Kitlar knew that the smoke damage went far beyond what they could see on the second floor.
“We opened up a couple of walls and we could clearly see the extent of the smoke damage,” says Kitlar. “It was a tragic situation for the whole building and the people living in it. The building was going to need a lot of work for the renovations but I knew with the right kind of renovation plan, we could turn this into an opportunity for something extremely positive.”
GEF Seniors Housing first worked to relocate the tenants from all 98 suites to other sites before beginning what started out as a $6 million renovation project. Plans were put into place to improve the fire and smoke protection, redesign the suites to better suit the needs of seniors, and even install a new sprinkler system. More challenges arose with the building project, including discovering a large amount of asbestos where parts of the sprinkler system would need to be installed and issues with the building envelope that caused major leaks including through the windows. The project quickly ballooned to $12 million.
“We were lucky to have a lot of support from the Government of Alberta throughout the whole project,” says Kitlar. “They supported a full redesign from the beginning. They knew this redesign would add another 40 years of life in this building and that was important for everyone involved.”
The Canora Gardens project has taken more than five years to complete with an opening date slated for January 2018. Kitlar points out that some rebuilds in the past have taken less time, but the Canora Gardens projects presented a few unique challenges (like the asbestos issue and the building envelope issue), which pushed the team at GEF Seniors Housing to go deeper into the building and work more to breathe new life into it.
“Once Canora Gardens is done, it will be like a whole new building,” says GEF Seniors Housing CEO Raymond Swonek. “I’ve been really proud of the team who not only have been rebuilding Canora Gardens but modernizing it as well.”
Throughout the Canora Gardens rebuild site, signs of bringing the building out of its original 1977 construction date and into 2017’s higher standards to residential buildings is evident all over. The building will feature better lighting, new interior finishes, improved common area spaces, a sprinkler system, and new energy efficient mechanical systems. For Kitlar, he’s proud of the mechanical and structural upgrades to the building, but there’s one facet that he’s especially excited about.
“We redesigned each of the suites so they function better for seniors,” says Kitlar. “We moved a few walls, flipped some floor plans, and were able to make the suites more conducive to the unique facets of seniors living without losing any suites. I am especially proud that we were able to keep the seniors who will live in the building so front of mind during this whole process.”
Swonek echoes Kitlar’s excitement about the redesign of the suites. His frequent visits to the sites have shown him how far along the building has come and how well this building is going to function as an independent seniors living complex once it’s completed.
“I visit the build site often because I’m a very visual person and I like to see the process being made,” says Swonek. “Canora Gardens is going to be so much of a safer building for the seniors living in it and I know it’s going to set a standard for seniors building renovation projects happening all across Edmonton.”
If you ask Doug Kitlar what he’s most excited about with the Sakaw Terrace project, he’ll have a lot of answers. With Sakaw Terrace being GEF Seniors Housing’s most ambitious building, there was a lot of risk and innovation put into the plans. But one innovation in particular comes up more often than most and is one of the more exciting aspects of a building that Kitlar has worked with in his more than 12 years as GEF Seniors Housing’s Director of Facility Management.
“The whole Sakaw Terrace project is being built on what’s called an Integrated Project Delivery, or an IPD,” says Kitlar. “That means that [GEF Seniors Housing], our architects [at Rockliff Pierzchajlo Kroman Architects Ltd.], and our building contractor [at Chandos Construction Ltd.] all have some sort of skin in the game. For our partners, it’s their profits that are at risk being based on the design and construction efficiencies. It was through this collaborative approach that the Combined Heat and Power unit became integral to the design.”
The idea of a Combined Heat and Power unit (CHP) was brought up as a way to efficiently and cost effectively provide electricity, heat, and hot domestic water to the more than 150 suites and commercial kitchen. On the surface, its efficiencies are obvious but it’s hard to see where the excitement is rooted. As Kitlar explains, once you break down the numbers involved, the CHP becomes quite impressive.
When compared to similar buildings GEF Seniors Housing currently owns and operates, the CHP unit will not only save the foundation significant money over time, it also helps to reduce a significant amount of carbon emissions. Utilizing a CHP for Sakaw Terrace will save GEF Seniors Housing approximately $80,000 a year and will reduce carbon emissions by 530 tonnes annually. To put into comparison, the United States Environmental Protection Agency measures the average passenger vehicle as releasing about 4.7 tons of carbon annually. That’s close to 113 Ford Focuses worth of emissions reduced every year. For Kitlar, the cost savings is nice but the environmental impact is where he’s especially proud.
“It’s important to own that environmental stewardship,” says Kitlar. “Every effort to reduce carbon emissions builds up to something bigger. Anywhere I can make an extra effort for environmental responsibility, I want to take it.”
The design of the CHP involves generating electricity on site using natural gas, which also produces heat. The heat is then captured from the CHP and directed to the pre-heat for the fresh air intakes, the building’s heating boiler systems, and the domestic hot water systems for the suites. Because both electricity and heat are created from a single source of fuel, it reduces the net amount of emissions.
Carbon emissions are further reduced because the CHP eliminates what’s known as line loss. Traditional electrical systems require the power to travel through long lines to reach where power needs to be generated, which can result in losing up to 40 per cent of electrical efficiencies. By having all the power and heat at a single source, any efficiencies that would have been lost because of line loss are regained, requiring less total natural gas to generate the same amount of heat and electricity.
“I really do think that everything we decided to include in the Sakaw Terrace project is going to set a new standard for what affordable seniors housing can look like in Edmonton,” says Kitlar. “We’re trying a few new things and I know the reward is going to be an amazing building that many people will be happy to call home.”