Clean Condo Life: Taking Heat Pumps To My Vertical Village’s Council

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As the resident of a lively 19-story condominium, replete with 233 suites, townhomes, and a couple of heritage homes, I find myself living on a plot with a colorful past — it once hosted a debauched nightclub and a brothel. What’s more, our building even carries anti-terrorism insurance, adding to the quirky trifecta that never fails to amuse me. At any given time, the building is bustling with four or five hundred individuals, not to mention a rotating cast of dogs and the occasional hallway cat.

The sheer scale of my living situation is not unique on my small urban block; there are four other condominiums of similar or greater size. However, we are starting to grapple with the impact of climate change, a reality that forces us to adapt and find innovative solutions.

In essence, our building is a vertical village. Just like a village, we have our own form of local governance — a condo strata here in Canada, or a condo association in the USA, and in Germany, they call it a painfully long word, die wohnungseigentümergemeinschaft (WEG). We’re incorporated, so it’s like a Board of Directors. Life in a condo is fairly regulated, owing to the potential impact of individual actions on the larger community. DIY for anything that opens a wall, touches wiring, or replumbs pipes is verboten. Almost all renovation needs the approval of the strata council, sometimes other owners, and often city authorities. This careful balance of community living and individual freedoms is the crux of our urban condo lifestyle.

In this ongoing clean condo life saga of adapting our urban community to the impacts and requirements of climate change, it’s time to talk about strata meeting results. As a reminder, in the first piece in this series I provided some context and talked about the several things we needed to do in one way or another. In the second and third, I dealt with what heat pumps were available locally right now that would work in condos and were available here, and then about the implications of trying to get them installed.

In the sometimes confounding puzzle that is condo living, strata councils are the metaphorical corner pieces — they’re fundamental to getting the whole picture right. In our vertical village the strata council is the elected body that helps everything run smoothly, because let’s face it, managing hundreds of units and their residents is no walk in one of the great nearby urban parks.

So, how do you get a seat on this council? Elections are typically held at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the strata corporation. Any owner can stand for election, and if you’re persuasive enough in your election speech, voila, you might just find yourself as part of the strata council. Actually, in my experience so far, there are never more hands up for the role than seats on the council, but perhaps other condos have more aggressively political residents.

What do these councils do? They handle the management of common property, enforce bylaws, handle finances, and oversee maintenance and repairs. Imagine them as the superintendents of the condo world, but with a bit more paperwork and fewer boiler room visits.

And of course, they hold meetings. Regular council meetings are where most decisions are made, budgets are discussed, bylaw infractions are reviewed, maintenance issues are debated, and plans for the AGM established. Just picture a Zoom call of half-a-dozen dedicated owners, passionately discussing the color of hallway carpets or debating the merits of investing in energy-efficient lighting. Just another meeting in the Cloud, but almost everyone happens to be in home offices in the same condo building. It’s democracy in action, right in the heart of our vertical village. And all the decisions made? They’re dutifully recorded in meeting minutes for all to see, something I’m sure that all owners read as soon as they are sent out. Okay, that’s unlikely.

Our strata hires a management firm, so the meetings are scheduled by it, and the firm does the heavy lifting of all of the day-to-day stuff. We have a property management professional responsible for us and undoubtedly half a dozen other buildings who establishes the agenda, puts together the documents, and shares them with us during the meeting. Our really excellent superintendent is on the calls too. We share him with another building as well. I really would rather not think about trying to do their services or figure out how to operate the building without a professional firm’s help. Among other things, they have a lot of day-to-day experience and learnings from other buildings to bring to meetings to keep us from getting out over our skis.

That means that for most things, we’re oversight, not doing the administration. But for transformational efforts, often it’s the council members who instigate it, take on research, figure things out, and sometimes even contact new vendors. From a heat pump perspective, it means that I had to take my research and opinions, share them with the other council members, the superintendent, and the management firm’s representative. At best, I had a hypothesis that what I was proposing was viable, and an even less firm idea of when we could make it happen.

So I structured it out. The first big question we had to sort out was whether we wanted to try the really daunting task of putting heat pumps on the roof and plumbing in every unit in the building, or just enable owners to purchase a standard heat pump from a pre-selected vendor.

Wrinkle one had surfaced before I’d made it through three sentences. One of the other council members had had a traumatic experience in another building where he owned units or something, the strata had tried to impose heat pumps on everybody without an AGM vote, and the owners sued the strata corporation. He was irate about us not forcing this down people’s throats, angry about the entire subject, and stormed off-screen. Yeah, condo stratas can get testy. Among other things, they are at the end of the day volunteer representatives with a wide range of backgrounds and concerns that occur in the evenings. Unlike real villages, we have a lot higher turnover, and a lot less ability to peer into our neighbors windows and get into their business. It’s tough to say what anyone at a strata council meeting had as a day, good or bad, stressful or soothing. You have to roll with it.

So, after that I was able to explain the big choice, and everybody remaining, thankfully still a quorum, agreed that we would go for option B. Then I presented the next decision point, should we just approve a contractor and a technology, and let the owners negotiate their own deals and timing, or should we negotiate a bulk order at preferential rates and have our superintendent keep a much closer eye on things.

That was easy, too. Who doesn’t like a deal, especially since the superintendent and I would be doing the work? And we are on council because we want to preserve the value in our building. So far, everything after the initial wrinkle was running as I’d expected.

So then the details came out. That we’d need different types of configurations for the bigger units and townhomes, then a basic configuration for the 190 or so units with balconies or decks, and a special configuration or a no-go for the 40 or so units without balconies or patios. We deferred that last decision, but it’s now acknowledged as a decision we have to make.

I explained that condensation occurred in the winter time, and that we needed a solution for that. I talked about the unfortunate high global warming potential refrigerant of heat pumps currently available in the Vancouver market, and foregrounded that we might have to accept them as a compromise. None of us were interested in the potential for any of our residents being among those injured or worse by the next heat wave, but we’re all Canadians living in a dense urban core who are very cognizant of the reality of climate change.

Then the next wrinkle arose. I’d assumed, and foregrounded that it was an assumption, that I was pretty sure we could agree on this on council and then I could move forward with it quickly. No such luck. The professional manager and the council member who is a real estate lawyer (awesome to have on council) quickly disabused me of that idea. Because we were going to require drilling through the envelope and mounting heat pumps on patios where they could be seen, hence changing the appearance of the building, we needed to take the decision to the annual general meeting.

Lots of questions from different members peppered this discussion of course, some fielded by me, some by the superintendent who I’d been working with in the lead-up to the meeting, in part to keep him fully on side, and in part because he’s absurdly competent at stuff related to buildings.

It’s already approaching June, so while we didn’t discuss it, trying to get an ’emergency’ AGM together didn’t make a lot of sense. Most people in the building have solutions, between portable air conditions, lots of fans, sleeping on the floor (one assumes), or checking into a hotel (as I almost did with my spouse when our portable air conditioner’s hose decided that this was the year that the vinyl would become brittle and shred into flakes, and finding a replacement hose required ordering one from Amazon).

My LED candle flame of hope about getting a built-in heat pump this year guttered and went out. Ah well. This is the reality of life in condos. Things take time. Governance requires care. Nothing happens as quickly as it seems it might. If you get involved with your strata council, take a deep breath and work on your patience.

And so, we reached the decision I thought we would about heat pumps. But there’s an extra step that will come to fruition in early 2024, taking a proposal to the AGM. The request for proposal draft I have in hand will turn into a request for information. We’ll engage an envelope engineer to look at the proposals with us. We’ll do some preparatory communications, which I’ll draft with Kahneman’s prospect theory firmly in mind, just as I did with the EV parking communications. We’ll probably survey all owners and renters about interest in participation as part of the process, probably in the fall, or perhaps during the middle of the next heat wave, although that would somewhat skew the findings, I’m sure.

That’s clean condo life. It’s messy. It takes time. There’s conflict involved sometimes. Emotions can run high. These are our homes we’re talking about, after all, and while living in the same building in the same city in the same country drives a fair amount of commonality of circumstances, it’s by no means an indication that we have the same opinion on things, or don’t react to triggers of our own. But, next summer, a lot more of us should have heat pumps to cool our hotter emotions down a bit.


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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 687 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard