The Courtyard Project: YWCA’s sustainable answer to affordable housing


The Courtyard Project: YWCA’s sustainable answer to affordable housing

Stephen Crotty believes affordable housing should be as safe and healthy as other homes.

“Even though you’re in a housing project, it doesn’t mean it can’t be held to a really high standard, and be efficient in the long run,” said Crotty, chief operating officer on the Courtyard Project, the YWCA’s latest sustainable response to Banff’s chronic housing shortage.

Funded in part by the provincial government, as well as the federal government’s National Housing Strategy’s Housing Innovation Fund, the Courtyard Project will expand the Banff YWCA’s affordable rental housing inventory by creating a net-zero neighbourhood – where the amount of energy used on an annual basis is roughly equivalent to the amount of renewable energy generated on site – within its existing land footprint. 

A 2012 Banff Housing Study identified an estimated shortage of 440 to 730 units in the town, with the lack of available lands being a key challenge in overcoming the shortage. Since the Town of Banff is in a national park, there are construction limitations to building projects, including height and space restrictions. 

The Courtyard Project will piggyback off the YWCA’s current 80 affordable housing units in Banff, but with a common kitchen and only a handful of private bathrooms, Crotty said the existing units aren’t conducive to families, single parent homes and people with accessibility needs.

Once complete, the YWCA’s three-story project will add 33 self-contained units to the combined inventory.  

Floor plan of the Courtyard Project

Floor plan of the Courtyard Project

To achieve a net-zero energy footprint, the Courtyard Project spent years researching housing innovations to come up with a sustainable strategy that will work in Banff.

First, the build will focus on an active, modular design using shipping containers with high functionality and livability standards.

According to Crotty, not only do the shipping containers have a robust building envelope able to maintain a high thermal rating throughout the seasonal fluctuations, they’re also fire resistant and useful for longevity.

Further, they have a lower impact on the building site and a shorter construction period, meaning the units will get to market quicker than a standard build, which will help keep rental costs down.

In addition, the project will use energy-efficient windows, solar panels on the roof of the building and access the YWCA’s low-pressure steam system from the existing units to help power the project.

The Courtyard Project is also adhering to the  WELL Building Standard, a global rating system which focuses on implementing criteria  that enhance tenants’ quality of life.

According to Crotty, sustainable and high-quality construction elements are normally the first things cut when building an affordable housing complex, but the project is placing an importance on creating a safe and healthy community. 

Some of the WELL standard’s criteria that will make the projects more liveable include improved air and water quality, the amount of green space, efficient building materials and high-quality cleaning supplies. 

By adding a net-zero component to its project, Crotty said the YWCA will be able to build an energy-efficient building that will benefit future tenants.

We’re on the cusp of something innovative as a YWCA,” he said. “If we can accomplish this in Banff, there is no reason why you can’t replicate this in rural communities across the country.
— Stephen Crotty, COO of the Courtyard Project

During his time with the YWCA, rents have increased three times – each due to a significant spike in energy rates and consumption. By building a net-zero project, Crotty said rent rates will be more consistent and controllable.

“To us, net zero means we have a viable, sustainable project where we can have consistent, affordable rates for our users,” said Crotty.

Although the up-front capital costs are significantly higher when building a net-zero project, Crotty said there is long-term gain. In fact, the project should see a return on investment within ten years.

“We keep passing on the cost of operational energy consumption to our users,” said Crotty. “These people are vulnerable and the least able to afford the increase.”

“Yes, we are going to pay more up front, but we are not going to pass that on to our affordable hosing residents.”

The YWCA is hoping to accept residents by June of next year. While none of the sustainable elements that they’re incorporating are new, Crotty said they’re generally not part of an affordable housing model design.

“We’re on the cusp of something innovative as a YWCA,” he said. “If we can accomplish this in Banff, there is no reason why you can’t replicate this in rural communities across the country.”