Scitech  Thomson House’s bid to go green

PGSS aims to bring sustainability to a historic building

The Sustainability Projects Fund is one of several non opt-outable fees students can expect to see on their bills this fall. At $0.50 per credit, it provides roughly $800,000 in annual funding towards projects that work to make McGill’s campus and community more sustainable. McGill has recently made sustainability a priority; every dollar students put toward the Sustainable Projects Fund (SPF) is matched by the administration.  Meatless Mondays at residence cafeterias and Outdoors Frosh are just a few of the notable initiatives the SPF supports. In January, Thomson House was added to this list.

Thomson House remains a beautifully maintained reminder of Canada’s architectural past.  Once a mansion on Montreal’s famed Golden Square Mile, it now houses the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS). Heritage buildings like the Thomson House add to the allure of McGill’s campus.

Today, most of the fifty or so homes in the McGill portion of the Golden Square Mile have been demolished to make way for larger, more modern structures like McLennan Library and the Bronfman building. Others like the Faculty Club – originally the home of Baron Alfred Baumgarten – have survived by adapting to the campus’ new needs. Despite this repurposing, it remains that these old buildings were not built with energy efficiency in mind.

PGSS aims to change this. Their project, called Sustainable Thomson House, consists of determining ways to make both the building as well as PGSS operations within the building more self-sufficient, with a lesser impact upon the environment. With a budget of $63,500, Sustainable Thomson House is one of the largest initiatives funded by the SPF.

The Post-Graduate Students’ Society insists that this is a project for the students and by the students. For the most part, this is true. Much of the operations auditing is done by students, including measurements of waste production and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as of the sustainability of food served in the independent Thomson House Restaurant and grown in the adjacent Permaculture Garden (also funded by SPF). A team of twenty undergraduate and graduate volunteers has been working on the project since January. Interested students can also participate through Environment 401 or Agriculture 490, which will offer course credit starting this fall.

However, the bulk of the initiative’s funding – an estimated $48, 000 – is going towards hiring an external engineering and architecture firm. Shona Watt, sustainability coordinator at PGSS, asserts that the investment in an external audit will be worthwhile, as it “will highlight what improvements can be done easily and economically feasibly.”

It remains to be seen how feasible the recommended changes truly are. The budget for the audits does not include actual renovations, but only the initial assessments required to possibly make changes in the future. Further funding for the project has yet to be secured. Changes of habit like decreasing waste and increasing recycling could easily be put into effect with a well-constructed plan.  But other initiatives like changing plumbing and insulation, as well as increasing solar and geothermal energy sources, may be too costly in the short term to execute.

“It’s not at all feasible to completely renovate all older buildings in the name of sustainability,” Watt admits.  But the Sustainable Thomson House team believes that small, incremental changes toward sustainability could create a powerful net effect. The audits being done at the Thomson House could serve as a template for such student- and volunteer-run projects in the future.

To inspire and educate students, the team hosted a community consultation on May 3, where they presented and discussed the project with the McGill community. Following the completion of the audits this month, the team will design changes toward sustainability for Thomson House. A second consultation is planned for the beginning of November in the form of a Sustainability Action Plan, a road map for the proposed changes spanning five to ten years.

Old buildings and waste production are not the only environmentally harmful elements that McGill could stand to change. The McGill administration recently completed their own audit, using the internationally recognized Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS). The result of this evaluation was a ranking of ‘silver,’ lower than many other universities comparable in size and endowment, like University of British Columbia. With long-term projects like Sustainable Thomson House, and a host of other smaller projects also funded by the SPF, students are trying to take sustainability into their own hands. But while their efforts are valiant and valuable, in the context of McGill’s overall environmental footprint, which reaches as far as support for asbestos production and mining, sustainability projects such as this can only scratch the surface of the University’s environmental impact.