Editor's Note: Today we introduce a new series by jack-of-all-trades Tom Rand - a series that I'm sure will attract and maintain your interest! Tom does a great job of introducing himself and his project, so I'll cut this short with a big "Welcome Tom!"
See this beat-up, abandoned building? Believe it or not, it will soon be a cutting-edge ‘green’ hotel, with a total carbon output a tiny fraction of business-as-usual – no green-wash here! We’re aiming for an 80% reduction, and we’re going to save money getting there. Follow me as I take you through that transformation, one step at a time, one permit at a time, and one technology at a time. What we’re doing – anyone can do!
Who am I? I
used to be a software entrepreneur – I founded Voice Courier Inc. (VCi), a Canadian-based communications software company, in 1999, and oversaw its expansion to 100 employees in three countries, with revenue in excess of $20 million a year. I sold that company and some related businesses in May, 2005. In other words, I can speak biz-speak.
I have a BASc in electrical engineering and applied mathematics from the University of Waterloo (Canada), an MSc in philosophy of science from the London School of Economics (England), and an MA in philosophy from the University of Toronto (Canada) where I am also presently working on a PhD. So – I also speak science.
What’s My Motivation?
So, what’s a guy to do who’s terrified of the potential earth’s heat-death, speaks science and business, and has a few bucks in the bank? Start a green venture fund, of course!! VCi Green Funds is my attempt to ‘get on the ice’ (apologies to non-hockey fans!) in our climate battle: it’s a small, private fund designed to provide seed capital to technologies that can reduce our carbon output. I’m aware of a certain hypocrisy – isn’t it our voracious economic expansion that is fueling this fire?? – but I’m not the one to start that revolution (perhaps George Monbiot is better suited to that task? See his considered positions here on Celsias and at www.monbiot.com). I respect the position, philosophically, and can’t fault a certain logic - but I’ve come to accept as pragmatically inevitable the Nordhaus & Schellenberger thesis: we’re not going to convince anyone to change what they’re doing without providing a positive, growth-oriented solution. I admit I’m a bit jaded. I think most people really will shop their way to oblivion, they really will be contentedly hidden away from the horror outside in their air-conditioned rooms, with the plasma TV running Planet Earth re-runs, wondering why they just can’t buy fresh salmon anymore (never mind the price of a good steak!). Telling them to stop what they’re doing because there are scary times ahead just ain’t gonna work; waiting for an anti-growth, anti-consumerist spiritual awakening to take hold just reeks of misplaced, naive hope. So - instead of revolution, I say let’s lead them to where we want them to go. Or, at least try. Climate change may scare the bejeezus out of me, but as an entrepreneur, I also see a lot of opportunity. As the need to seriously constrain carbon becomes more apparent, those who can fulfill the constraining will profit, and those whose energy use is carbon-intensive will lose. There are three big hits I’m interested in – transportation efficiencies, building efficiencies, and renewable energy production. I believe efficiencies are the easiest carbon reductions to make, followed by renewable sources of energy. I am using my capital, my expertise and my time to try and turn the tide of climate change, and intend to turn a profit in so doing. The project I am documenting in this blog is one of several that VCi Green Funds is involved in, and the first to deal with the energy use associated with commercial buildings. As I learn about commercial building efficiencies, I’ll share that with you. My penny-pinching partner – Mr. Anthony Aarts – will be the final arbiter on all carbon-reducing decisions: if he says it doesn’t make financial sense, it won’t get done. In other words, we’re showing how much you can reduce your carbon without being a nice guy! What we’re doing can and should be done by anyone with a building and a bank account! Each technology and modification we incorporate will come with an economic justification.
So - What’s the Project?
Planet Traveler will be a 100-bed hostel/hotel for young people. The 7,500-square-foot building, originally built in the early 1900s, is located on College Street in Toronto, Canada, near the Kensington Market. It was abandoned 10 years ago. Since then, the roof has collapsed, and there’s extensive water and fire damage throughout. My partner, Anthony Aarts, and I bought the building in November, 2006. I was in Paris writing my thesis, so Anthony and I danced on the phone during what was a quite intense bidding war on the building. I had hoped the state of the building (no roof!) and the impending winter would keep others at bay, but obviously there were a number of people who saw value in the site. The building went for around 40% over asking. Anthony and I celebrated over the phone – me with a plate of escargots and a bottle of wine, and he with a cold beer. I provide the capital and expertise on “greening” the project. Anthony has renovated a number of buildings in Kensington and already runs an existing hostel/hotel in the area. The hostel will be his baby day-to-day, and this will be his largest project to date. He’ll be in charge of the renovation and the daily operations at the hostel/hotel once it opens—hopefully in June, 2008. Our plan is to increase the size of the building—it’s currently 2.5 stories (the third story takes up only half the building’s footprint), and we hope to get planning permission to build out that half-floor. We also want to open up a small mezzanine on the roof, so that the guests can enjoy the phenomenal view of Toronto while they write letters home, or chat with newfound friends. We’ve gotten a few proposals from architects, and we’ll make a final decision in the next couple of days. We’re going to fully renovate the building, with an emphasis on making it a cutting-edge “green” building. George Monbiot has calculated that a realistic requirement in terms of stabilizing our climate, is a massive 94% cut in emissions from our current Canadian baseline. I take this science pretty seriously, and started VCi Green Funds to be a part of the solution. This building is to be my contribution to building technology, I want it to be an example of how to go about living sustainably in a modern urban environment. We all still want hot showers, right? We all want the ecosystem to still support our species, right? Well, we’ve got a lot of work to do. I will learn as I go, and will ditch technologies that may be trendy and look good, in favour of technologies that actually deliver. Do I put solar panels in favour of solar water heaters? Is a turbine feasible? Should I heat with natural gas or wood pellets? I plan to quantify everything I do, so that I have an empirical guide as well as proof-of-concept for other builders that I can justify on paper. Here’s my initial (probably naive plan): Solar panels will be placed on the roof to generate solar power, with a switch to the public grid—so we can sell excess power to the omnipresent Power. We’ll also put passive solar heating for water on the roof, as well as a green garden. We hope to place a small but highly visible wind turbine on the roof as well (though that depends on planning permission from the city of Toronto). Each area within the hostel will be thermally isolated, so that during the winter, we’ll only have to heat the rooms that are occupied. That will be a major challenge—to allow each room to be individually thermally controlled (and insulated) without reverting to expensive central heat or to inefficient electrical heat. We’ll look at all heating and cooling options. We’ll look at insulation issues. All waste-water pipes will be fitted with thermal-recapture technology. With so many guests, we anticipate needing a lot of energy for hot showers—energy that normally goes quite literally down the drain. Instead, we’ll recycle that energy, using the Power-Pipe, a passive heat-transfer technology (created by a Waterloo-based company) that grabs the heat going down the drain in a gravity-fed copper pipe and transfers it back to the hot-water heater. First we need to get all the necessary city permits, and frankly we anticipate a number of misadventures in negotiating these permits. We’re also expecting a number of unpleasant surprises while renovating a completely run-down building that’s been abandoned for a decade. So far, we’ve replaced the roof in two sections, and an eight-man crew has already spent several weeks emptying the building out and stripping it down to the bare structure—we’re anticipating hauling out hundreds of bins of junk. To give you an idea of where we’re starting from (!):
It’s going to be a race to get the project completed in time for the summer season. Then there’s the task of capturing the attention of young world travelers. Let the games begin! Continue to Part II