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Toronto's iconic Fairmont Royal York a certified Zero-Carbon Building

Upgrades slash carbon emissions 80% at downtown hotel, save millions in utility costs

Fairmont Royal York is being recognized by the Canada Green Building Council for the decarbonization efforts by owner KingSett Capital and the Toronto luxury hotel's management. (Courtesy KingSett Capital)

Toronto’s historic Fairmont Royal York hotel has been certified a Zero Carbon Building – Performance Standard by the Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC), recognizing years of effort by its owner to eliminate most of the building’s carbon emissions.

After almost five years of work from planning to execution and a $65-million investment, the 94-year-old Toronto landmark operated by Fairmont Hotel and Resorts has reduced 80 per cent of its annual carbon emissions, or 7,000 tonnes per year. From 2023 to 2050, 165,000 tonnes of carbon will be removed, according to KingSett Capital, the Fairmont Royal York's owner.

The decarbonization retrofits run the gamut from energy efficiency upgrades to utilizing Enwave Energy Corporation’s deep lake water cooling system, which uses water from Lake Ontario to cool buildings rather than natural gas-fired systems.

“Now that we’ve gone so far and so deep, we’ve really positioned the hotel for the next 20 to 50 years. A lot of the infrastructure we needed to upgrade and replace is infrastructure that’s going to last for that long,” Kit Milnes, the vice-president of sustainability and resilience at KingSett, said in an interview with Sustainable Biz Canada.

“This building’s a heritage building — there’s a lot of stuff you can’t touch and a lot of stuff that becomes very, very difficult if you want to do anything . . . It was really just the back of house that was this last remaining piece that is going to bring this hotel up to the high standards that KingSett wanted for the next several decades.”

Decarbonizing the Fairmont Royal York

KingSett had examined the building performance data and its capital budget to estimate when the Fairmont Royal York would need key systems replaced, and found many of those systems were close to end-of-life. The opportunity lined up with KingSett’s goal to improve its environmental performance and reduce carbon emissions.

“We talk about it in the industry as, once every 20 years things align where you’ve got to spend a lot of money anyway. So what is the premium to go above and beyond and do a deep, deep carbon retrofit for the building, eliminating in this instance 80 per cent or more of its carbon emissions?” Milnes asked.

The steps taken by KingSett included:

  • studying and analyzing the building’s energy load;
  • using Enwave’s district energy network to transition heating and hot water systems away from steam equipment to electric heat pumps;
  • utilizing Enwave’s deep lake water cooling system;
  • installing back-up generators for peak energy shaving; and
  • boosting energy efficiency with building automation and smart technologies.

The greatest impact on the Fairmont Royal York’s carbon emissions reduction came from getting it off a gas-powered steam system, Milnes explained.

The hotel was previously “using steam for everything.” Now it is equipped with a heat pump plant that is “many times more efficient” than its steam counterpart, according to Milnes.

The retrofits did more than improve KingSett and Fairmont’s environmental record; they've also benefitted the financial bottom line.

Detaching the hotel from a “very expensive utility that is steam” led to projected savings of over $2 million in its first year, according to Milnes, with the savings increasing as the carbon tax ramps up.

Learning to 'MacGyver' equipment

The greatest challenge for KingSett, according to Milnes, was making the changes in a fully-occupied heritage hotel coming out of the COVID pandemic when the industry was under “significant pressure.” There was a delicate balancing act between not disrupting guests who visit for the “Fairmont experience,” and coordinating between KingSett and Fairmont.

Though Fairmont Royal York lies outside of KingSett’s core fund, which has a target for a 35 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2027, Milnes said the retrofits taught the real estate investor a lot about decarbonizing buildings in its wider portfolio.

It gained familiarity with the technology and learned how to best “MacGyver” hefty equipment into sub-basements that have structural pylons and posts that cannot be moved, he said.

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