Geothermal Heat Pumps

Article: North End's Geothermal Gem

Rundown buildings transformed into modern homes

By Murray McNeill and Larry Kusch
Winnipeg Free Press, April 19, 2008

A local renovator is breaking new ground in the still-fledgling world of geothermal residential development in Manitoba, and he's doing it in one of the most unlikely places.

While the province and developers dither over whether its economically feasible to go with geothermal heating in the upscale Waverley West housing development in southwest Winnipeg, the largest geothermal residential project in the province's history is unfolding -- without fanfare -- in a working-class neighbourhood in northwest Winnipeg.

For the last nine months or so, Andrew Marquess's workers at B M Lands have been methodically transforming a sprawling, subsidized-housing development near Mountain Avenue and McPhillips Street into new-age-looking apartments and townhouses that will be entirely heated and cooled with geothermal technology.

We're talking 336 two- and three-bedroom rental units in 18 buildings -- two apartment blocks and 16 three-storey townhouse complexes. Twelve run-down buildings are being stripped to the bare foundations and walls and completely rebuilt, while six new ones are being constructed from scratch.

The work is more than doubling the number of suites in the original development.

"Once this project is done, it will probably be the benchmark for high-efficiency multi-family homes," said Dean Fiorentino, director of site operations for the massive project.

The McPhillips Common project is not just impressive because of its size and scope.

Marquess, owner of B M Land, is also undertaking the $25-million-plus project with no government assistance other than some Manitoba Hydro energy-efficency rebates for installing triple-pane windows in each of the units.

"I'm not a proponent of subsidies and government assistance because I think the market should work on its own," Marquess said.

As he talked, forklifts and BobCat tractors roared past, shuttling building materials across the sprawling 3.3-hectare worksite. Nearly a dozen buildings were in various stages of construction and reconstruction, a couple with the exteriors and interiors nearly complete, and others that were little more than a concrete foundation and fully exposed studs.

In six short years, Marquess has become a recognized expert in acquiring older, multi-family residences and upgrading them to modern-day standards.

In the case of McPhillips Common, he and Fiorentino, owner of Fiorentino Building and Renovations, had their crews strip down the 10 existing townhouses to the bare foundations and the wood studs in the walls. Then they rebuilt everything, installing new insulation inside and out to an R35.5 rating -- nearly double the standard required in the provincial building code -- as well as triple-pane windows and a heat-recovery ventilation system in each suite to keep moisture levels down.

"It has to be part of a complete package," Marquess said. "It (installing a geothermal system) only makes sense if you're doing a total retrofit or new construction."

They also took a similar approach with the interiors: nothing but top-notch, long-lasting, low-maintenance materials such as ceramic tiles, granite countertops, hardwood floors and maple cabinets.

Robert Walger, geothermal project manager with the provincial Science Technology Energy and Mines Department, said to his knowledge, the North Winnipeg project is the first district or community geothermal system in Manitoba -- one in which a large group of buildings is served by one geothermal system.

"B M Land is a visionary and a pioneer developer as far as their commitment to renewable geothermal heat pump systems..." Walger said.

Jino Distasio, director of the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg, said such high-density infill apartment projects boost neighbourhoods by giving them a greater range of housing options. They also give young people a chance to remain in their old stomping grounds, if they wish.

Distasio said the development will be welcome news in a "really, really tight" city rental market and shows that not all development is occurring in the south part of the city.

"It is another signal that that part of Winnipeg continues to grow," he said of the North End.

Marquess and Fiorentino said geothermal heat is probably better suited to large-scale projects because of the economies of scale that can be achieved. They said while the upfront capital costs are substantially higher if you go with geothermal and a complete retrofit -- probably 70 to 80 per cent higher in the case of McPhillips Common -- so too are the rewards in reduced heating, cooling, electrical and maintenance costs.

"The savings can be immense over the long haul," Marquess said, particularly in light of the rapidly rising cost of heating fuel and electricity.

The first building to be completed was one of the two 23-unit apartment blocks on Troy Avenue. It was finished in February and is already fully leased. The other apartment block is not quite done, and it's already 20 per cent leased. All of the apartments are two-bedroom units that rent for $750 to $775 per month.

Marquess said the new townhouse units aren't that much more expensive than the old ones, despite all the upgrades. The old three-bedroom units rented for $750 to $800 a month, plus $150 to $200 a month for heating and electricity. The new ones, with heating included, are $1,095 a month.

Reproduced with permission.

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