Back in the late 1970’s a project called Conservation House in Saskatchewan highlighted the use of air tightness and “heat recycling” to manage energy consumption.  It was one of the first demonstration projects of its kind in North America and achieved a benchmark of 85% less energy required than a standard home for heating and cooling.  At the time, the research behind its success did not manage to influence Canadian building codes.  Instead it made its way to Germany, where “Passive Houses” were designed and built beginning in the 1990s.  While Passive House construction is increasingly being used in the private housing market today, the application of its principles to publicly-funded housing has been less common. 

Cooper – the first building purchased in 1979


At about the same time Conservation House was built, new approaches were being studied in an entirely different field.  Individuals living in psychiatric hospitals were introduced to new treatments which shortened their hospital stays and allowed them to move into the community. While a step in the right direction, simply releasing people without appropriate supports often resulted in rapid breakdown in mental health and then re-hospitalization.  In response, mental health professionals, along with family members and friends of people with mental illness developed new ways to provide supportive living arrangements.  Their approach of combining affordable housing with other rehabilitative services assisted persons recovering from mental illnesses to regain their health and integrate into the community.  Ottawa Salus, a local organization, was an early example of what became known as supportive housing.       


Forty years later, there has been positive change supported by our community’s growing understanding of mental illness. Statistics like ‘1 in 5’ inform popular campaigns to raise awareness that the stigma of mental illness is not only inappropriate and outdated, it is a barrier to mental wellness.  Yet many individuals with serious illnesses such as clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia still end up living on the margins of society and too often, on the street.  A lack of permanent quality affordable housing forces individuals into instability or into situations where they must live at a subsistence level, depending upon others or confined to hospitals, reminiscent of decades past. The price of their housing is their own independence. And it is a cost we all bear as members of one community. 

Ask anyone what their home means to them, and that person would likely list many things beyond simple shelter. Supportive housing can make housing a home for hundreds of Ottawa’s most marginalized citizens.  While hospitals treat individuals in crisis, the stability that is gained from supportive housing decreases the need for hospitalization.  And supportive housing is not only affordable for individuals who pay rent as tenants, it is far less costly to the taxpayer.                                                                             


Tenants of supportive housing can choose from a range of places to live as well as the degree of professional mental health support they need.  Sometimes they prefer shared living to combat isolation or loneliness, in which case they live in a small home with communal kitchen and living room spaces. They may prefer a small walkup with a half dozen apartments in a downtown neighbourhood where they can meet with their individual case manager to discuss their goals and progress.  They may choose a place in a larger building, with many neighbours around them and greater anonymity. 

These same tenants may leave every day for work or school or volunteering.  They may join a 5K running group, a tai-chi class, a documentary film group, or theatre arts. They may be singing in a band or teaching others to play guitar.  They can enjoy these activities and hobbies in neighbourhood community centres and local gyms, or through programs offered in their own building, where staff trained in mental health and community development or recreology provide a supportive place to gather with others, enjoying common interests. The choice is theirs and those choices strengthen our communities.  At the root of that choice is the ability to live affordably in a well-maintained home where they can heal, recover and live a life of independence and dignity. 

Members of the Salus Big Bucket Band, currently performing around Ottawa

Members of the running group competing in a race in Ottawa

In February, Ottawa Salus proudly introduced its newest construction project to Catherine McKenna, Minister for the Environment and Climate Change.  When it opens in the summer of 2016, the project will provide 42 new homes to individuals living with a mental illness, many of whom have experienced homelessness.  Currently under construction in Ottawa South, the multi-residential building has also been pre-certified to International Passive House standards.  It is the largest scale affordable housing project being built to Passive House standards in North America.  Savings generated by Passive House design will reduce operational costs for Salus and this publicly-funded asset.  The estimated cost to heat each studio apartment annually is estimated to be $27 per year. 



Clementine – first Passive House multiresidential affordable housing project in North America 2016

With a current wait list of 5 to 7 years, Salus’ newest Passive House building will offer that choice to another 42 of Ottawa’s most vulnerable citizens. It is also reviving Canada’s role as a leader in the design and building of Passive House construction for maximum energy savings and consumption demand management. The Ottawa Salus project will set a new standard in affordable, quality and above all, environmentally responsible construction.  For more information, please visit: 

Tags: Dwayne Wright