Building Excitement for Energy Efficiency

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Hackers generate new ideas to conserve energy in Toronto’s apartment buildings

By: Jessie Ma and Ramtin Attar

 On an early July weekend, ALERT (Affordable and Low-income Environmental Renewal in Toronto) hosted a hackathon at the Centre for Social Innovation. A hackathon is a community event where computer programmers, engineers, web designers, interaction designers, business people, user groups and other experts come together to create prototypes that address a specific challenge.  Teams strive to develop new solutions to address these problems and present work to a panel of judges.

The ALERT Hackathon encouraged competitors to develop prototypes geared at tackling one of Toronto’s greatest challenges: encouraging energy efficiency in Toronto’s residential towers.

Ideation

Toronto’s residential buildings are responsible for one fifth of the region’s greenhouse gas emissions. Apartment towers use the highest amount of energy than any housing type. Towers built between 1950 and 1970 pose a particular risk. During this period, construction advanced using poor insulation materials. As a result, today, these buildings waste huge amounts of energy to heat and cool units. Building owners who invest in energy efficiency retrofits can lower their greenhouse gas emissions by 74% -- and reduce operating costs in the process. Participants in the Hackathonwere asked to create an innovative solution to encourage more building owners to take advantage of energy saving opportunities.

The winning team, PowerOf5, created an app called Energy Alert that immediately notifies building owners of their energy usage and opportunities to conserve. ALERT will further refine this idea through collaborations with building owners to create a toolkit to enable energy efficiency investments.

Second place went to Powerdown, an energy data visualization tool that integrates weather forecasts into predicting future consumption. Building Rewards captured the third place prize with their idea that gives tenants incentives to conserve energy while empowering them to determine rewards designed for their community. Other ideas included a box of small energy efficient appliances for tenants, data visualizations, and interactive checklists to guide landlords.

“The ALERT PowerOf50 Hackathon leverages our collective creative assets, aspires engagement, and empowers a community that manages Toronto’s largest affordable housing stocks,” said ALERT founders and CivicAction’s DiverseCity Fellows Ramtin Attar, Autodesk, and Jessie Ma, Hydro One. “The response so far to ALERT has been amazingly positive. Many people sense the great need to address this complex economic, environmental and social dilemma, and we hope to harness this enthusiasm and make a positive difference.”

ALERT differs from existing efforts by taking a community-based approach to development. The Hackathon draws together experts from a broad spectrum of expertise, and building owners and managers are involved to ensure that the ALERT toolkit will meet their multi-faceted needs. In March, ALERT won CivicAction’s dragons’ den event, where the panel of civic leaders recognized ALERT’s potential impact, plan development and momentum.

Ideation

Hackers were inspired by experienced leaders throughout the weekend. At the opening reception on Thursday evening, former Mayor David Miller encouraged competitors by saying that “working with people in buildings and creating jobs for locals are key for tower renewal.” Adam Krehm, Principal at O’Shanter Development Company and hackathon judge, told the hackers, “If an owner saves $1 on its energy operating costs, he or she would add $20 to the value of the building.”A panel of experts in technology, buildings and the environment judged the prototypes on innovation, potential for impact and feasibility for implementation. Lorraine Gauthier, Principal, Work Worth Doing – Now House, chaired the judges’ panel. The judges were:

  • Rob DettaColli, Manager of Energy and Sustainability, Brookfield Condominium Services
  • Adam Krehm, Principal, O'Shanter Development Company
  • GordKurtenbach, Sr. Director of Research, Autodesk
  • Mary Pickering, VP - Programs and Partnerships, Toronto Atmospheric Fund
  • Thea Silver, Program Manager (Province-wide) and Strategy Lead, Environment Sector at Ontario Trillium Foundation

The City of Toronto is presently studying a new energy reporting requirement for residential highrises, among other types of buildings. If passed at city council, Toronto would follow the lead of other international jurisdictions, including New York City, for mandatory disclosure of energy use. Prototypes from the ALERT Hackathon could help building owners and governments use the power of the data to make more informed decisions.

About ALERT

ALERT (Affordable & Low-income Environmental Renewal in Toronto) is a proposed framework for a web-based toolkit to encourage energy efficiency investments in Toronto’s residential high- rises through cycles of continuous improvement. ALERT is founded by Ramtin Attar and Jessie Ma, and it is a project incubated through CivicAction’s Emerging Leaders Network. Attar and Ma connected as CivicAction’s DiverseCity Fellows, an intensive leadership development program for city builders. ALERT is a project under Imagine My City, a non-profit that enables and increases productive and meaningful community-based collaboration in issues related to our built environment.