Definition of Sustainable Urban Housing

Sustainable urban housing is the development by private or public means of residential units that encourage positive environmental and socioeconomic outcomes, as a function of their unique design, policy-origins, and urban context. Sustainable urban housing makes use of specific practices in land-use planning, construction, and broader policy administration in order to achieve its goals. Sustainable housing is closely related in its delivery to the field of community planning, and many external policies affect its outcomes. Generally policies that encourage sustainable housing will encourage:

  • the re-adaptation of existing buildings/structures wherever effective;
  • the mixing of land-uses in close proximity in order to create complete neighbourhoods suited to active transport;
  • the implementation of green technologies that conserve energy or waste outputs.
  • the use of recyclable materials in construction/new materials which contain few or no toxic substances;
  • the fostering of social cohesion and community life; and
  • the provision of an adequate stock of units available to low-income households at affordable or otherwise below-market rates.

Major Theories

The push for sustainable housing follows a literature that has historically been divided into related fields: before the consolidation of sustainability research in the 1980s, a form of sustainable housing was (and still is) one de facto objective of environmental design and green architecture. Alternatively, policy experts and governments had demanded some housing in a city’s stock be “public”, “social”, or – most recently – “affordable” following the deconstruction of public housing delivery mechanisms beginning in the 1970s. Since the 1980s, researchers and policy technicians in developed countries have generally agreed that environmental sustainability and socioeconomic sustainability must be fused in the delivery of housing, whether it is by public or private means.

 Major Experts/Academics

  • Sin van der Ryn
  • Clare Cooper Marcus
  • Wendy Sarkissian
  • Tarja Häkkinen
  • Adam Ritchie
  • Randall Thomas
  • John David Hulchanski

Major/Seminal Sources of Literature

Clare Marcus and Wendy Sarkissian redefined the concept of effective housing in their Housing as if People Mattered (1986), in which they argued for the psychological and social impact of medium-density housing forms. The first UN convention on housing and human settlement occurred in 1976 – HABITAT I; the HABITAT II report was compiled in 1996. J.D. Hulchanski has written extensively on the history of housing policy and implementation in Canada, and on future social housing outcomes.

Metrics of Sustainability

Similarly to the literature, metrics of sustainability have been grouped largely into two categories around socioeconomic and environmental themes. A construction’s environmental sustainability is commonly measured in terms of its carbon output, efficiency in energy and water management, and waste-reducing systems. Within socioeconomic indicators, two main focuses of research have been proxies for the relation of housing to health and assessments of economic and social accessibility in housing. Ritchie and Thomas look to the “future adaptability” of the housing unit as a key indicator of that unit’s sustainability in their Sustainable Urban Design: An Environmental Approach (2009).

Good and Bad Examples

The Good:

The Bad:

Major Difficulties

  • Much like transport, in housing it is difficult to quantify the outcome of different sustainability metrics that may be operating at odds with one another. For example, how can we deliver (sometimes) expensive energy-saving technical systems in houses that must be affordable for low-income citizens?
  • Lack of application of practical knowledge of interaction effects between housing and transport, green space, etc…
  • In certain areas, and many suburbs, widespread NIMBYism towards pro-sustainable housing policies such as densification and rent-subsidies.

II. Portrait of Montreal in Housing and Buildings


Before looking at the specific picture of Montreal concerning green housing & buildings, it is important to have an idea of the elements already in place. As of 2006, there was 743,235 households in Montreal, which represents 50.1% of the households in the Communauté métropolitaine de Montréal. They are subdivided in the following categories: 12.5% of single-family homes, 38.5% of plexes (duplex, triplex, etc.), 21.8% of buildings with less than four floors, 10.3% of buildings with four floors or more, 10.4% of condominiums and 6.5% of other types of households. 7.1% of those households enter the social housing category (52,881 units).

To assess Montreal’s sustainability level in green buildings, it can be useful to look at some indicators of buildings quality and efficiency. The construction period and the state of maintenance of buildings are two of them. In fact, 46.3% of the households in Montreal were built before 1960, when the population was less aware of its impact on the planet and when efficiency standards were important. Moreover, in 2006, 9.6% of households need major repairs, showing the lack of maintenance of Montreal’s buildings. This shows that many should be renovated in order to meet sustainable standards.

Source: ProfilstatistiqueenhabitationdelavilledeMontréal

Montreal Sustainable Plan & Policies

Montreal has the specific objective to become more sustainable in its infrastructure. Their primary goal was to increase by 46% certification and programs between 2006 and 2010,which has been reached and even went beyond, according to the table below. The targeted buildings were schools, universities, institutions, businesses & commerce and industries. However they did not focus on housing and residential zone. The city has also engaged in revising municipal support for certifications to encourage greener buildings and construct or renovate buildings according to the LEED or BOMA BEST Norms (see end of section for details). Indeed, Montreal has only 13 certified LEED buildings, which is relatively low compared to Chicago which has 88 or Vancouver which has 36. However, Montreal has many BOMA BESt buildings, reaching 103 – just after Toronto which has 155 and ahead of Vancouver which has 73. Montreal is on the right track but there still needs more work to be done.

The main problem in assessing building sustainability at the municipal level is the availability of information. The indicator of green building we used is the number of certified green buildings because the information is generally all listed at the same place. Contrariwise, there is no exhaustive listing of all green buildings in Montreal, including non-certified ones.

Source: Leplandedéveloppementdurabledelacollectivitémontréalaisep.56

In Montreal, buildings account for 20% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emission, therefore the city has decided to enhance greener building. The  goals of sustainable development  for 2012 were to reduce by 20% GHG from buildings,  by 15% energy consumption of municipal buildings and by 20% drinkable water consumption, using 2002  as a baseline. Since the target ends this year, there is still no report published on the progress made. However it seems very ambitious for such a short amount of time to reach these goals.

Source: PolitiquededéveloppementdurablepourlesédificesdelaVilledeMontréal

In their 2010-2012 MontréalCommunitySustainableDevelopmentPlan, the city has the objective to increase by 30% the number of certified green buildings by 2020 compared to 2010. This objective is based on the three pillars of sustainability. It assesses the environmental dimension by the adoption of more sustainable practices in building construction, the economic dimension by decreasing operational costs of the buildings and the social dimension with the adoption of higher standards of air quality in buildings. Furthermore, because it wants to be considered as a leader in green building, Montreal will require all new municipal buildings to be certified LEED Gold to reduce GHG and energy consumption.

 * Certifications*

BOMABESt: Building Owner and Manager Association Building Environmental Standards launched in Canada in 2005 a program applicable to existing buildings with best sustainable practices and action plan. The list of certified BOMA BESt in Montreal is available here.

LEED: Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. A certification that measures sustainability of building based on nine criteria. The list of certified LEED buildings in Montreal is available here.


One of the main challenges of Montreal in a sustainable building perspective has to do with the Building Code of Quebec, which is of provincial jurisdiction. In fact, this document states the rules and standards to be respected in building construction and renovation which are enforced by the law. If Montreal wants to aim towards more ambitious targets, it has no legal rights to enforce those choices. On the other hand, they can always provide incentives for developers to reach specific goals.

We also have to keep in mind the financial limitations of a municipality. Even if a city like Montreal has a lot of taxpayers, it also has a lot of services to offer and cannot heavily subsidize all forms of sustainable practices.

III. Organizations and key actors

Green buildings & architecture

■            MaisonProductive

Rune Kongshaug started in 2008 an auto-sufficient and zero emission house with eight residential units. It has more than 160 members from the neighborhood who partake cultivating the garden. The main challenge was to educate people, as living sustainably is expensive, it becomes a luxury. However, wealthier people value private space more than communal space which is not a sustainable practice. The poor are forced to share space whereas wealth brings value to greater privacy.  Moreover, the dominant North American vision of developing horizontally makes it difficult to implement vertical infrastructures. Real estate is a business; however when it involves sustainability, educating the tenants and learning to work with human nature is a major aspect that is often forgotten. The city’s policies constrain the will to build sustainable houses. For example, they forbade him from demolishing the facade in order to create a more ecological wall that would avoid shading the rest of the apartment.

■            AbondanceMontréalLeSoleil

Part of CMHCsEquilibriumhousing and designed by the architects at StudioMMA, this triplex is 100% photovoltaic power. Therefore it is auto-sufficient in terms of energy consumption and emits zero carbon. Moreover, its energy consumption is less than half the average Canadian standards per household. It is also LEED certified and is seeking the Platinum certification. A similar future project Abondance La Terre is currently under construction.

■            Green House in St-Henri

HabitatforHumanity is a NGO that provides houses for low-income families, gave to a family in 2010 a Gold LEED certified duplex to Aabid-Ezzerouali family. The house was designed by StudioMMA, and financed by Financière Manuvie and also through subsidies of Home Depot Canada Foundation.

■            CommitteefortheSustainableDevelopmentofGriffintown

The aim of this organization is to promote the sustainable developmentofGriffintown by encouraging the city to use sustainable materials and conserve the authenticity of the neighborhood.

Non-Governmental Organizations

■ Equiterre

Equiterre is an environmental organization active on both environmental and social issues. It works more specifically on five different themes: food, gardening, housing, shopping and transportation. For the last decade, Equiterre works on its most ambitious project ever, la Maison du développement durable, which is now also an independent NGO.

■La Maison du développement durable (MDD)

La Maison du développement durable is the most efficient offices building in Quebec, but it is also a NGO specialized in green buildings. It will become the first building of this type to be certified LEED platinum in Canada. The goal of this project was to prove that it is possible to construct a sustainable building in an urban area using current technologies. MDD also aims to become an interpretation center of sustainable building practices. The establishment of this project has not been easy and this is one of the reasons it took ten year to materialize it. In fact, Equiterre had to find partners with expertise in the domain and a way to finance their project. This is because it is generally more costly in the short-run to adopt more efficient technologies and sustainable materials, even if there will be a payback in the long-run.

■Office Municipal d’Habitation de Montreal (OMHM)

OMHM manages the real estate patrimony of Montreal, it ensure equal access to decent housing for all social classes. In 2007, after the province came with a sustainable development law, the organization developed its own sustainable development plan for housing. It provided a guide with ten sections in which sustainability issues – specifically in buildings- is tackled with proposed solutions.


■ McGill School of Architecture & Urban planning

Sevag Pogharian has established a cool initiative of getting to zero, which aims at creating buildings that are self-sufficient.

HEC-GRIDD: (Groupe de Recherche Interdisciplinaire sur le Developpement


Professor Pierre Olivier Pineau led a research to evaluate whether sustainable buildings are profitable. In the end, even though there is a greater initial cost to build green buildings, in the long run it is more profitable for commercial as the energy consumption is lower and the production is independent which considerably decreases the bill. It is also very profitable for the real estate industry as they can sell houses for a greater price.

■ Concordia

Dr. Radu Zmeureanu is a Concordia professor who has thorough knowledge in the engineering domain and sustainable development, more specifically in building energy conservation technologies and energy management in buildings.

IV] Conclusion

Montreal is overall taking many actions to become more sustainable in the green building sector. Indeed, many initiatives at the local and municipal level have been taken. However, the lack of communication between the different levels of government – municipal, provincial and federal – constrains the efficiency and the scale of these initiatives. Clearly, there is much more that can be done; Montreal is not at its full potential in order to become a sustainable city flagship. Fortunately, grassroot projects proved that it is possible to implement green building projects despite the lack of incentives to do so. Therefore, we must further educate Montrealers so that more people demand and pressure the government for a sustainable environment.

Incentives are needed to restore existing buildings into more sustainable ones and to afford the costs of green technologies for new buildings. However, an issue remains on whether tradition means sustainability. Restoration often implies degrading the patrimony of certain infrastructures that lost their charm of authenticity. Montreal, as a dense city, has the potential to become more sustainable and energy efficiency will play an important role in its achievement.

Other useful references

  1. Quartiers 21
  2. BOMABEStandLEEDComparison
  3. Écohabitation
  4. GreenLifeHouse



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