Posted by: energyblogwalter | June 10, 2008

Why Condos (and apartments) Suck

Condos are going to go. After seeing “End of Suburbia” and being well read in the Peak Oil movement over the last four years now, I have serious doubts about this building arrangement. For me, this is a personal request for any friend to please not move into a condo. I’ll try to outline my concerns below.

Only a few years ago you would not find me in disfavour of condominium development in the slightest. Growing up around and passing through Yonge & Eglinton between Avenue Rd and Mt. Pleasant this certainly was a normal feeling. The main Yonge intersection area only grows. Central building construction made sense to keep large buildings out of residential neighbourhoods so intersections which were already built up were able to have more. It brought people into the local economy. If built at a good location, such as near a subway or shopping mall, it reduced car traffic. More people could live and enjoy downtown amenities. The Trump towers are almost finished as I write this. All wonderful so it seems.

For this type of world, this makes sense. All of these good points however mandates that there be cheap abundant energy, and this is why they could be built. This is why they were built.

Other fossil fuels in condos include natural gas. Buildings are made for natural gas heating and not coal or wood or other forms. NG is so convenient since it’s automatic; you don’t need people staffed to fuel up your building or rooms, it’s piped through everywhere and you just pay your bill every month. What could be easier? It’s so easy now people stop thinking about it.

1) Energy Depletion

In energy markets it’s known that Canada’s quantities of natural gas are waning. Most of Eastern Canada imports its heating oil from the Middle East. At some point these fuels of oil and natural gas will soon diminish, ramping up demand nationwide, and nowhere will people feel it the most than those who live in condos.

As a development, they concentrate more people into a single location. Thus the costs are split between them. When energy is cheap and abundant, this type of living arrangement works just fine, in fact is ideal for costs. However, should the costs go up, there is then no longer any recourse to be made in changing fueling systems. The buildings run on natural gas, and that’s about it. They weren’t designed for changing energy needs.

2) A house of opportunity

Compare this to houses. Houses have a fireplace, have a front and backyard, have a roof, and have land surrounding it on the sides. All these surfaces can use different forms of energy and replace natural gas as heating fuel. Be it solar thermal (cheap), using thermal mass (cheap), wood (cheap), ground source pumps (medium cost), solar panels (expensive), houses have it all. Excess energy can be sent to the grid as ‘net-metering’ thanks to recent laws in Ontario (as they try to catch up to other jurisdictions with similar policies). It doesn’t matter how old or new the house. The future of renovation and rebuilding looks bright, and indeed always has. There is such a thing as a zero-emission house.

3) More condo expenses

Condos on the other hand, are not designed for renovation. They have no such readily available alternatives that can be cheaply applied to the building other than more electricity. As natural gas supplies shorten and increase in price, so too do living expenses. As people will switch over to electricity there will be more cost pressures to supply it. The buildings systems would have to be renovated to accommodate the new electricity loads and switches, as well as the lines to the buildings and transformers, and finally all this new demand delivered from the local power stations. Quite an investment would be required by residents and governments. In fact, without any net-metering options, there will be no means of ever recouping the renovation costs compared to houses.

In fact, there is little in the way any condo can do to reduce its energy loads. You buy a condo, your costs will never go down. At some point for some people the cost of renovation will deprive their ability to live in one. They will not be able to sell as the units will not be livable. Thus sinking your equity. It’s not looking pretty and only represent a temporary living arrangement.

4) Less is still more

Some condos may work out, if they have access to other means of energy, or if their energy needs are fewer due to smaller buildings or fewer stories. Flat roofs and parking spaces can support a garden, thus reducing energy loads for cooling as well as providing a little food. One side of the building may generate thermal or solar energy. However the condo dwellers will have to split this energy between them, whereas the homeowner does not. Whereas the condo dweller wins on costs today, they suffer on reduced energy opportunities tomorrow.

The problem is that putting too many people on the land means less available alternative energy for each person versus a home owner. The condo cost dividend is now a major energy liability. In a home with a windmill for example, the initial costs are higher, but the return on investment with net-metering goes up dramatically and acts as an asset rather than a liability. Whereas a condo can easily afford a windmill splitting the costs, however with too many people there’s not enough energy per person to even bother considering options.

For homes it’s also possible for the energy costs to go down into negative values, where the homeowner can engage in net-metering. The homeowner is in charge of their own energy usage and creation, and can take direct control of it and not be left to the whim of a building committee.

5) Find a house somewhere

This issue is more about people who will do anything to live in downtown Toronto. Given the above, this will not be such a bargin in the future, and will likely lead to a reduced downtown population. Any landholding home in and around the area would be your greatest benefit even if it costs more now. Land having a southern exposure is prime for energy and gardening for example. If not near the lake, near a train line would also be good.

6) But not anywhere

It’s a toss-up if (s)carborough and other ‘burbs will be useful or considered in these discussions. By simple fact there’s not much to do there other than drive, this is a separate issue of decline that may make an otherwise prosperous energy alternative powered home undesireable. Crime there is bad now mostly on boredom, so what will it be like as energy scarcity increases?

7) Managed population decline will be desireable

We need liveable walkable communities not car based garage farms and not wasteful condominum developments. In understanding our population residency requirements I realize that perhaps we are over our carrying capacity for the downtown area, and we should force a retraction of population. By spreading out our needs over a wider area and lessening the load it only then becomes cost effective for everyone. Also other cities are interesting, it can’t just be downtown Toronto! In building away and only up to an area limit, only then can we also branch out a culture.


  1. going on about house vs condo I realize that I didn’t mention cellars. Back in the day houses used the thermal properties of land to keep food cool. With a little engineering optimization or even as is, all houses in Canada can replace their refrigerators with the re-emergence of cellar use. As fridges are always a 24-7-365 electrical drain, the wholesale replacement wherever convienient significantly reduces house loads.

    The issue is convenience. We are a society of convenience and asking people to go to the basement or move the kitchen there should no doubt prove impossible. However, cellars work, and are another example of how old tech reduces our energy requirements, and is basically free.

    It’s funny how many solutions are back to the past but with a modern flourish. I believe them to be cheap, easy to use, and a significant benefit to anyone willing to appreciate them again. Green is also good for the wallet and makes your house a true asset.

    Compare that to a zero option condo, and once again the house has more options than we can shake a jar of canned peaches at.

  2. Learned from a friend recently that even if in the winter you have southwestern exposure and receive enough passive solar heat …too bad for you! The fine print says your condo fees still won’t go down! Sweet…

    No advantage again. Even when energy is free and delivered fresh, you can’t get ahead of your costs. Worse, you’re subsidizing others who can’t save energy.

    Are all apartments and condos bad? Most but not all. If you must, a building 4 stories or less might be viable with the fewer stories the better. Otherwise try for a house.

    Always think of the available energy per lot. Is it enough to support the building on it? Too much of a building with too many people will be too much demand versus the available energy and be an energy loser. You’ll need outside inputs just to function 100% of the time.

    I wonder if by supporting condos, you are in fact supporting nuclear power? Not many options and again should electrification sky rocket, nuclear is the only means these buildings can continue. More condos, more nuclear. All unnecessary and expensive taxes and fees will never ever end.

    Ironically Paris is designed for 7 floors or less from the previous centuries design plan, yet France is a world leader in nuclear power. Here, we have the lopsided buildings sizes which need nuclear to survive but not enough nuclear generation.

    I say we don’t have to. Let’s take the lesson and learn to design better, maybe like Paris. Energy is there already if we look for it properly. We have the land. We have the means. The rest is just details.

  3. speculation that the new HST in Ontario will also give rise to condo fees. However it’s Ontario’s NDP leader, so take that with a grain of salt

    “””Blended tax will hike condo fees, NDP warns”””

  4. condos and apts are terrible–condo rules, regs, police like “boards” and do-nothing “boards” too. HOA dues always going up for nothing, and apts are loud, noisy, and weirdo residents and single male syndrome galore.

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