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Greening the Infrastructure at Benny Farm, Montreal, QC, Canada

The rehabilitation of Benny Farm as sustainable subsidized urban housing puts forth a new model for neighborhood development with strong community integration in the design process.

Pioneer of sustainable urban renewal

This urban, landscape and architectural project is the world's first government-subsidized, community-driven neighborhood rehabilitation project that combines affordability, green building technology, and preservation, rehabilitation and new construction. Preservation of the social mission (affordability, social quality, green public spaces) of the original development, environmentally sensitive renovation and construction (material reuse, waste minimization, energy efficiency, emissions reduction) of the housing units, establishment of a nonprofit, community-run utility company to manage the new district geothermal heating system, and incorporation of many stakeholder groups throughout the design process are four fundamental merits of the project.

Model for residential refurbishment

Combining these diverse objectives addresses the full range of sustainability challenges: social, ethical, technical, environmental and economic. The project demonstrates that the entire agenda can be mastered simultaneously. Thus, Benny Farm is a vignette of a sustainable future. The buildings themselves are not a prototype for replication, but the values, intentions and the process by which they were developed represent a new model for community-driven sustainability that can be applied universally. Given the vastness of the global stock of aging residential buildings and inequitable distribution of wealth, such a model is an urgent necessity. 

Pioneer of sustainable urban renewal

This urban, landscape and architectural project is the world’s first government-subsidized, community-driven neighborhood rehabilitation project that combines affordability, green building technology, and preservation, rehabilitation and new construction. Preservation of the social mission (affordability, social quality, green public spaces) of the original development, environmentally sensitive renovation and construction (material reuse, waste minimization, energy efficiency, emissions reduction) of the housing units, establishment of a nonprofit, community-run utility company to manage the new district geothermal heating system, and incorporation of many stakeholder groups throughout the design process are four fundamental merits of the project.

Model for residential refurbishment

Combining these diverse objectives addresses the full range of sustainability challenges: social, ethical, technical, environmental and economic. The project demonstrates that the entire agenda can be mastered simultaneously. Thus, Benny Farm is a vignette of a sustainable future. The buildings themselves are not a prototype for replication, but the values, intentions and the process by which they were developed represent a new model for community-driven sustainability that can be applied universally. Given the vastness of the global stock of aging residential buildings and inequitable distribution of wealth, such a model is an urgent necessity.

Decades of pressing for change

The Benny Farm rehab project originated in 1992, at a time when the notion of sustainable construction was still quite young, and Montréal was not yet ready for such radical thinking. Throughout the project, at virtually every front, the architects and stakeholders had to press hard to change attitudes, rules, and ways of thinking and working – knowing full well that it is not so much new technology that is needed to achieve sustainability, but rather new mindsets, behavior and practices. Due to the complexities of funding, ownership, politics, public debate, legislation, approval processes and the sheer scope of the Benny Farm site (785 homes on 7 hectares), L’OEUF ultimately managed to realize only a part of its grand vision for the entire development.

Gaining, applying and disseminating knowledge

Nevertheless, the team's work strongly influenced the master plan for the entire complex, well beyond the seven buildings that L’OEUF directly worked on. The character and social attributes of the larger neighborhood remain intact today. L’OEUF has already applied the lessons learned at Benny Farm to a second similar project, Rosemont, and is beginning to achieve changes in government policy to allow for new sustainable solutions and approaches. The lessons learned through both projects are the subject of a new monograph soon to be published by the Holcim Foundation. This is fully in line with the architects’ original intent to break new ground with these projects, learn through them and broadly disseminate the knowledge to support widespread change.

Green buildings – old and new

The design of the buildings at Benny Farm focuses on material reuse, heightened air quality, durable construction and energy-efficient envelopes. Energy systems incorporate geothermal heat exchange, hybrid glycol/electric solar power, radiant heating and cooling and both air- and water-based heat recovery. Water systems include gray-water and storm-water reuse. All systems contribute to the sustainable and continued development of Benny Farm, and all systems increase the quality of life for the users. The old and new buildings incorporate both old and new materials. Wood flooring, bricks and radiators were recycled. The old buildings all have upgraded envelopes and ventilation systems. Indoor building materials with potentially toxic gas emissions were eliminated or replaced, and inefficient mechanical ventilation systems were upgraded to improve efficiency and reduce energy costs.

New legal and economic model

Three non-profit housing organizations were formed for the project, and a new legal and economic model was pioneered: Green Energy Benny Farm (GEBF), a non-profit green utility company. Most of the energy provided by GEBF comes from renewable sources, and water use is reduced by more than half, so the partners are substantially protected against increases in energy and water costs. This model of participation among all levels of social organization, grassroots to federal government, is applicable everywhere.

Last Updated: August 24, 2011
Article Details
Location
Montréal, Canada
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