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Historic school revitalization pegged at $3 million

Solar power and geothermal heating system proposed as part of grant application
Brick School3
The Athabasca Public School will be completely revitalized with a number of improvements, including solar power and geothermal heating if a Green and Inclusive Community Buildings grant is successful.  

ATHABASCA – The historic Athabasca Public School could soon be utilizing a photovoltaic (PV) spread for power and a geoexchange system to heat and cool the building as part of a proposed revitalization project for the 110-year-old building, but it’s entirely dependent on the success of a $2.33 million grant application. 

Town of Athabasca council heard from ReImagine architect YangYang Jiao at the Dec. 6 regular meeting who laid out some of the plans for the Old Brick School, as it’s known informally in Athabasca, and the application she prepared and submitted on behalf of the town to apply for grant funding through the Government of Canada’s Green and Inclusive Community Buildings (GICB) grant. 

The funding is granted based on factors of accessibility, greenhouse gas emission reductions, energy savings and climate resiliency, and the revitalization plans for the project include all of those, she said. And being a revitalization project under $10 million, the project is eligible for 80 per cent funding. 

“We are tackling our greenhouse gas reductions by switching the building to fully electric so we're no longer using gas lines. We are adding in solar energy and also a new geoexchange system,” Jiao told council. “To address energy savings, we are looking at higher efficiency building systems to improve the building envelope and increasing the R-value so we lose less heat, and we lose less coolness in the summer. We're adding heat recovery systems and we're switching to LEDs throughout the entire building.” 

Any aspects of the projects outside of those four areas will not be funded with the grant and will have to be picked up through other grants and municipal budgeting, along with the other 20 per cent cost of the project, about $650,000. 

Because of the age of the building, the solar and geoexchange systems will provide a huge leap in efficiency ratings, reducing energy use by 71 per cent and greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent, which are conservative estimates, Jiao said. 

The solar array is potentially to be set up in the north parking lot, which Coun. Dave Pacholok initially questioned, but Jiao assured him the appropriate studies had been done to ensure enough sunlight could be captured to power the building. Normally, the panels would be installed on the roof of a building but as the roof of the old school is a character-defining element, it cannot be altered on a designated historical building. 

The geoexchange system would be installed beneath the solar power system beforehand. The vertical collector outside would be connected to a pump inside the building to regulate the temperature of the water used in the heating system that will potentially be used throughout the building.  

“And what this would look like is actually quite inconspicuous. They're just four holes that would be drilled somewhere on site. And they would feed into a key pump that will be hosted inside the building,” Jiao said. 

“The north parking lot seems like it's an opportune space because you don't need to redo the landscaping or anything like that, so what would happen is you would have four holes drilled, you would have your geo system put in and then we will put up the PV array over and essentially and both of these could happen in that parking lot.” 

The project also proposes a partial demolition of the basement to repair the foundation of the building and fix up the entire structure across all three floors. This would include a complete rebuild of the Athabasca Pottery Club in the basement and taking out the partition walls on the main floor to support a café and teaching kitchen. A makerspace and a historic classroom are also planned for the second floor. 

The installation of two washrooms and a Limited Use Limited Application (LULA) lift, along with wheelchair lifts at each entrance will also go a long way to making the building more accessible to everyone, part of which includes bringing the entire building up to current building safety codes. 

Mayor Rob Balay said the strategy was to work backwards from the $3 million limit, as there are two streams of funding, the larger of which goes up to $25 million, but was severely oversubscribed at the time. So, after changing up some plans to focus on the requirements of the grant, the cost came out to $2,992,226.40. 

Jiao said ReImagine has completed 10 GICB grants and heard back in as few as eight weeks but has waited up to six months for others. 

Balay said he requested the presentation, which was conducted via Zoom, to let the rest of council in on the plans for the building, which he reiterated is dependent on the success of the grant application. 

“I wanted all of council to have an idea of what we're getting into and what had been proposed. It's pretty bold; I don't know that we've had any geothermal projects in this area, so this will be the first municipal one for sure. I think that if we're successful, anytime that we can get 80 per cent funding on a project, we've done a really good job.”