65% of BC residents say that having an outdoor living space is the most significant factor in their buying decision apart from cost. Yet condo balconies are one of the worst culprits for heat loss and high energy bills. Research out of Europe might have a solution.
It comes as no surprise that BC residents who are looking for real estate value outdoor living spaces. A recent survey presented to the Urban Development Institute demonstrates just how much: private outdoor spaces surpassed typical contenders like square footage and number of bedrooms to rank as the top priority apart from cost. And in Vancouver, where property is listed at a premium and the demand for condos is skyrocketing, balconies provide that much-needed connection to the outdoors.
Yet balconies frequently come under fire as a drain on resources for residents and condo boards alike. For one thing, balconies are notorious for leaking heat from the interior, coming in second only to exterior windows as the biggest culprit for energy loss.
Reduced energy usage with balcony glazing
A researcher at the Tampere University of Technology in Finland has a solution: add glazing to the balcony. A glazing system protects the balcony space with single-paned, non-thermal glass panels that slide and fold open. The researcher, Kimmo Hilliaho, compared the energy use of condo buildings that have glazed balconies to those without, and found that even though the glass panels don’t technically enclose the balcony or create a thermal barrier, the energy savings are still substantial—up to 18.3% for Vancouver-area condos.
With balcony glazing, the typically-unprotected outdoor space becomes a buffer zone between the cool outside air and the warm condo interior. The temperature on the balcony increases by 2-8°C as a result of the glass panels. Exterior surfaces that usually leak heat—the balcony door, exterior walls, and any windows looking onto the balcony, for example—have that additional layer of warmer air to insulate them, reducing heat loss substantially. The protection also means that there are fewer drafts in the apartment, so residents don’t need to turn their heat on as frequently.
Extra benefits for older buildings
Older buildings stand to save the most. Built to a different code, with materials that have endured a few decades of wear-and-tear, these condos are highly susceptible to drafts and heat loss—as any resident or condo board who has had to pay a hydro bill for one of these units will tell you.
Yet the savings are tangible for new buildings, too. Most Vancouver condos have projecting balconies, where the same slab of concrete that forms the interior floor extends out to create the balcony platform. These slabs rarely have thermal breaks, so the cold air on the balcony travels through the slab to chill the inside of the apartment. Residents typically respond by cranking the thermostat, and then see corresponding increases in their hydro bill. Warmer temperatures on the balcony reduce the need for this.
Thermal breaks and insulation for slabs
Wrapping the concrete slab with insulation can also help reduce heat loss, a study by RDH Building Science Laboratories suggests. They tested the effects of spray foam insulation on heat transfer and found moderate energy saving benefits. The insulation worked best to reduce heat loss when it was applied to the fascia as well.
More effective than spray insulation is a thermal break in the slab itself, the RDH report adds, looking to Germany for this solution. Although the basic concept is similar—balcony thermal breaks also rely on foam insulation—the benefits of having the thermal break in the slab are more considerable. In these cases, buildings can see energy savings of 4-8%. This solution is not restricted to new construction projects alone; existing buildings can be retrofitted with thermal break products to reduce heat loss.
Financial and environmental benefits
Energy-saving measures like balcony glazing and balcony thermal breaks have been around for decades in Europe and are now making their way onto the North American market, with the potential for significant benefits for both residents and strata councils. The advantages are not just financial but also environmental, which is an especially crucial consideration for Vancouver condos. Vancouver has the greenest building code in North America (as well as a population committed to environmental sustainability), and the city recently implemented requirements for buildings constructed prior to that code to reduce energy usage and carbon emissions by 20%. These retrofits could help existing condo buildings meet the city’s requirements—and reduce costs at the same time.
Outdoor character of balconies maintained
With efforts to minimize heat loss and increase energy savings, it is important to keep in mind the essential outdoor character of the balcony—that connection to nature that BC residents crave. Most products designed to protect the balcony space are enclosures. These undoubtedly contribute to energy savings, but they turn the balcony space into an extra room in the home, taking away its outdoor flavour. Such enclosures also violate zoning restrictions and count towards the building’s gross floor area or floor space ratio.
By implementing energy-saving measures like balcony glazing and thermal breaks, strata councils can reduce energy bills and carbon emissions while ensuring that the balcony remains an outdoor living space for residents to enjoy. And in true Vancouver fashion, condo-dwellers will take full advantage of their backyards in the sky—whether that means cultivating a garden on their balcony, hosting summer barbecues, or simply savouring their morning coffee outside.
*This article was originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of CCI Vancouver's magazine, Condo News, which is available in digital form on their website.