A small neighbourhood in Toronto has built a program to help residents reduce their household emissions. Could their grassroots approach become a template for the rest of the country?

By Andre Mayer
Jan. 16, 2023

On a snow-flecked Sunday afternoon in mid-December, Paul Dowsett gathered a group of neighbours in his backyard for a toast.

Although the event featured mulled wine and a crackling bonfire, this was no holiday party. Rather, it was an event to celebrate homeowners in the Pocket — an east Toronto neighbourhood — who have committed to an energy retrofit to reduce their carbon footprint.

A Pocket resident since 1997, Dowsett is an architect by trade and a local sage on matters of sustainability. Dressed in a striking green lumber jacket, the 61-year-old extolled his neighbours’ climate consciousness, and after a breezy explainer on the environmental harms of natural gas, related some breaking news.

“I am really excited to tell you that as of yesterday, my house … is producing zero greenhouse gas emissions,” Dowsett said. The crowd whooped.

The event, which drew about 30 people, was not only a testament to the fact that some Pocket residents want to renovate their homes to help the planet, but also that the community has their backs.

According to Natural Resources Canada, buildings — including our homes — account for about 18 per cent of the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The federal government has announced a target of making Canada net-zero by 2050 and offers a number of grants to help homeowners lower their emissions. But pledges alone aren’t enough to empower people to make the necessary changes.

“There’s not been a lot of success in the past with getting home retrofits happening, beyond [governments] sending out packages of low-flow showerheads and encouraging people to switch to LED lightbulbs and caulk their windows,” said Eve Wyatt, a retired transit professional who volunteers as a “project manager” for the Pocket initiative.

Concepts like air sealing and heat pumps are becoming more mainstream, but between the cost and the technical jargon, undertaking an energy retrofit can seem forbidding.

We’re really happy that we have the support of [this] group. It just makes the process easier, if you’re trying to go the net-zero route.

As Wyatt’s title suggests, the Pocket provides more than just a cheering section for would-be renovators. The community designates them “Changemakers” and supports them with local Facebook groups, retrofit webinars hosted by neighbours and industry professionals and coaching from people like Paul Dowsett.

Raj Sandhu and her husband, Robert Brooks, are among the newest Changemakers. They and their children moved into their two-storey home in 2019, and are consulting with Dowsett on a multi-tiered retrofit that includes better insulation, electrification of the heating system and, eventually, solar panels.

“We’re really happy that we have the support of [this] group,” said Sandhu. “It just makes the process easier, if you’re trying to go the net-zero route.”

WATCH | Pocket resident Raj Sandhu explains her home retrofit plans:

The Changemakers program is part of the Pocket Change Project, a local initiative looking at ways to reduce emissions on a neighbourhood scale. That not only means supporting home retrofits but also reducing transportation emissions by trying to improve access to public transit and creating more bike- and car-sharing opportunities.

Pocket Change “is very unique in a Canadian context,” said Brianna Salmon, executive director of Green Communities Canada, a non-profit that supports grassroots climate action. “It’s one of the only projects that is resident-driven.”

For about five years, the Pocket has been configuring a system to reduce residential emissions. In 2023, they are planning an outreach program to help other Toronto neighbourhoods achieve something comparable.

The question is: can something that works in the Pocket work outside it?

Leading by example

Bounded by Danforth Avenue to the north, Jones Avenue to the west, Greenwood Avenue to the east and a rail track to the south, the neighbourhood is a mix of century homes and townhouses on a series of streets that don’t quite line up. Moreover, the railyard on the eastern flank makes it (nearly) impossible to drive straight through — hence, the Pocket.

An overhead view of the Pocket. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

The area contains about 1,400 residential households. Living in something of an enclave, Pocket dwellers exhibit a strong sense of identity. The community not only holds street parties but also has its own Pride parade and its own newsletter.

Residents have also demonstrated an abiding interest in sustainability. Gord Fraser, for example, has had solar panels on his roof for more than a decade, and shares data about his electricity generation and use on a website.

If there was a single catalyst for Pocket Change, it’s probably David Langille, a retired politics professor who, like Dowsett, has lived here since the 1990s. A few years ago, Langille mused to Dowsett that to reduce building emissions, the neighbourhood should attempt to establish a district heating system.

The idea is that rather than heating and cooling each house individually, multiple buildings are hooked up to a central system, along the lines of a municipal water service. Most often powered by renewable energy, district heating is quite popular in Europe, with scattered examples across Canada (including in Vancouver and Teslin, Yukon).

Dowsett countered that the red tape involved in establishing such a system in the Pocket would be immense. But he said there would be a great benefit if residents could decarbonize their homes, through some combination of better insulation and non-fossil fuel heat sources. Thus began Pocket Change.

Pocket residents who commit to a home energy retrofit are given a lawn sign that includes a QR code that links to the Pocket Change Project’s website. (Evan Mitsui)

Dowsett is the principal architect at the Toronto firm Sustainable, but his interest in environmentally minded construction goes back decades. Coming up as an architect, he was greatly influenced by design concepts like passive solar, whereby windows, walls and floors are placed in ways that collect or deflect the sun’s energy.

After purchasing his home in the Pocket in the mid-1990s, he immediately stripped it down, eventually creating a sort of open-concept urban cottage that was a model of energy efficiency.

“My partner is from the southern U.S., and basically his stipulation was that I could do anything I wanted to the house, as long as he got a southern front porch,” joked Dowsett.

This porch, which extends from Dowsett’s office on the second floor, is a fine place to sip a mint julep on a warm day. But it also embodies the principle of passive solar, in that it minimizes the high summer sun and maximizes the low winter sun.

Dowsett created a singular, airtight home, but he later realized there was still a problem: he was reliant on natural gas.

In recent years, he and other Pocket residents have become preoccupied with getting off gas. By taking steps like installing a heat pump and an induction stove — neither of which rely on fossil fuels — Dowsett is demonstrating how to achieve it.

“If I’m going to convince people to do it, I have to do it first,” said Dowsett, who describes his place as a “show home.”

A heat pump transfers heat between the inside and outside of a home. Powered by electricity, it is essentially a furnace and air conditioner in one.

Because Dowsett offers tours of his home, Sandhu was able to experience a heat pump first-hand to understand what she was getting into. “Knowing that it feels just as warm as our house does, with the natural gas fireplace, was really helpful,” she said.

Architect Paul Dowsett is one of the key figures in the Pocket Change Project. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

When a Pocket homeowner expresses interest in upgrading their house, they will consult with a retrofit co-ordinator like Michael O’Neill, who installed a heat pump and solar panels in his home and has been emissions-free since July.

The Changemaker will then be referred to Sarah Grant, co-founder of Goldfinch Energy, a local company that provides energy audits. Grant, in consultation with Dowsett, will create a “road map,” sketching out a retrofit plan based on the homeowner’s needs and budget.

That could include any number of measures, from new windows and mineral wool insulation (which is highly efficient and made largely from recycled materials) to an air-source heat pump and non-gas appliances.

The Changemaker also receives a green lawn sign that says, “We are reducing our home’s carbon footprint” and contains a QR code that links to the Pocket Change website.

Some residents may view the signs as virtue signalling or a subtle form of social pressure, but they’re ultimately meant to reassure homeowners about what’s possible in the way of environmental action.

“The signs are there to basically say, yes, your neighbours are doing it, you can do it, you have the option,” said Wyatt.

There are currently 21 active Changemakers. While retrofit co-ordinators have regular check-ins with them to address any challenges or concerns, Wyatt stresses that the motivation for any project has to come from the homeowner. “We need to be a resource, not a nag.”

A rooftop solar array in the Pocket. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

A number of Pocket residents surveyed on the street hadn’t heard about the retrofit initiative. They were generally supportive, but as one woman put it, “It’s not really top of mind.”

Wyatt is cognizant that “there are a lot of people who aren’t interested in this.”

“We hope over time it’s an organic process that settles in the community, and takes on a bit of a life of its own,” she said.

So far, 10 air-source heat pumps have been installed in the Pocket, two homeowners are completely off natural gas and four houses are producing clean electricity through rooftop solar panels. Wyatt cautions that measuring the environmental benefits of this will take time. The Changemakers will share utility data for two years after their retrofit work to evaluate the results.

Grant says a key benefit of the Pocket Change Project is that it establishes “neighbour-based accountability.”

“When you get stuck, you’re not left alone and not feeling like you need to reach out to a professional and pay them,” she said. “You can just turn to your neighbour and get some ideas and inspiration — or just that motivational nudge to keep going.”

Finding the right model

The Pocket is hardly the only community in Canada to take a deep interest in reducing household fossil fuel use.

For example, in the town of Bella Bella, B.C., members of the Heiltsuk Nation have undertaken a systematic plan to reduce carbon pollution by replacing oil furnaces with heat pumps for all community members. In Montreal, a group of residents established a geothermal heating co-op.

The town of Bella Bella, B.C., is in the process of installing heat pumps throughout the community. (Submitted by Q̓átuw̓as Brown)

Then there’s the Better Homes Neighbourhood Energy Project, a partnership between the City of Charlottetown and EfficiencyPEI that was piloted in 2019 and is in its second phase. Like the Pocket Change Project, it brings homeowners together to share information on how to decarbonize their homes and navigate various energy rebate programs.

In 2020, the non-profit Envirocentre launched the Future Homes Ottawa project, with the purpose of raising awareness about home retrofits in the neighbourhoods of Carlington and Old Ottawa South. The aim, says Envirocentre executive director Sharon Coward, is not only for “residents to gain trust in the process” but also to cultivate an industry of qualified retrofit contractors.

Pocket resident Raj Sandhu says a key aspect of what her community is doing is helping to “upskill” contractors to do this work.

Now that they’ve seen some localized success, the Pocket community plans to establish a retrofit co-ordination service that could be adapted elsewhere in Toronto. Wyatt says that would include giving other neighbourhoods access to communication materials and energy auditors and replicating the kind of community support seen in the Pocket.

One of the challenges of adapting a project like this elsewhere is that the Pocket is not representative of most Canadians. Sarah Grant says that generally speaking, most people who are currently able to do home retrofits share three traits: they have a certain level of technical knowledge; they have time to investigate the options; and they have the funds.

A heat pump system, for example, runs in the $15,000-$22,000 range, says Grant, while exterior insulation for a typical two-storey detached home costs anywhere between $40,000 and $100,000. Even with available rebates, those are large figures.

I believe that people who are privileged enough have a responsibility to do this.

Existing government rebate programs work “for middle- and upper-income Canadians who can pay up front for a retrofit and then receive a grant after the work is done,” said Brendan Haley, director of policy research at Efficiency Canada, a group based out of Carleton University in Ottawa that advocates for greater energy efficiency. “But the financial barriers are still too great for lower-income Canadians.”

Not only that, but about one-third of Canadians rent, according to Statistics Canada, and requiring a landlord’s approval limits your ability to cut household emissions.

“For folks that are renting, there are far fewer opportunities to make change where they are living,” said Salmon of Green Communities Canada.

Dowsett acknowledges this.

“Renters can’t touch their building envelope, they can’t touch their mechanical system. They just don’t have control of the levers they need. It is their building owners and operators that need to make changes,” he said. “We at Pocket Change are not really the model for them.”

Haley says that to meet its stated climate goals, Canada needs to establish more stringent policies that force building owners of all kinds to use more sustainable technologies. To effect deeper emissions cuts, “we need the government to step in and mandate things.”

Even so, local government has found inspiration in what Dowsett and co. are doing. Thanks to the advocacy of city councillor Paula Fletcher, whose ward contains the Pocket, the City of Toronto is retrofitting community housing units and other publicly owned buildings in the area, in a program called Pocket Change Plus.

WATCH | The National’s full feature on the Pocket Change Project:

When it comes to reducing household emissions, Dowsett is clear-eyed about where he thinks the responsibility lies.

“We who are the affluent ones are the ones who create an outsized carbon problem; people who are less affluent do not,” he said. “I think it’s very disingenuous of us to try and impose austerity on people who are not the problem. We are the problem. We need to change,” he said, before adding with a laugh, “rant over.”

Other Pocket residents echo this sentiment. “I believe that people who are privileged enough have a responsibility to do this,” said Lori Zucchiatti O’Neill. “A lot of people can’t afford to do this, but we can afford to do this. So it’s like, full steam ahead.”

Given the urgency of climate change, Coward at Envirocentre sees home energy retrofits as a massive “energy infrastructure project” that every country needs to undertake.

“At this point, individual homeowners are being asked to pay for that, which isn’t fair. We need the federal and provincial governments to realize we have an energy infrastructure problem and increase the funding.”

In the meantime, the work relies on the initiative of people in neighbourhoods like the Pocket.

David Langille, who has done a large retrofit on his dwelling, has a framed aphorism in his home office: “Humans are social creatures, strengthened by community and encouraged by solidarity.”

“Yes, we are trying to build a better society, a stronger social fabric that can help people make the big transition,” Langille said.

“It’s a big leap that we humans have to undertake. We don’t have much time. So it requires city-building, in the best sense.”

With files from Alice Hopton and Inayat Singh

Top image: Evan Mitsui | Editing: Janet Davison