The Changing Face of Harbourfront Centre

By: Colin Gu

Contributor: Allison Annesley (Efficiency Capital)

I recently learned Harbourfront Centre is a not just a popular destination. It’s also a model for how to tackle climate change, one building at a time. Harbourfront Centre has a rich history tied to its location, just steps from Lake Ontario. A variety of industrial facilities and warehouses dating back to the early 20th century have been re-purposed as cultural venues, thanks in large part to their ideal acoustics. Harbourfront Centre attracts millions of visitors every year but my last visit wasn’t to watch a show. I came during Green Energy Doors Open, which happily coincided with an amazing on-site vegetarian food festival. The food was delicious fuel for learning about how Harbourfront Centre used future utility cost savings to pay for energy efficiency upgrades in buildings that were constructed in the 1920s.



There have been a series of energy upgrades at Harbourfront Centre in recent years, partially funded by The Atmospheric Fund (TAF – formerly known as Toronto Atmospheric Fund). These upgrades to existing buildings have reduced the harmful greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to climate change by roughly 300 tonnes annually, saving more than $35,000 a year in utility costs. Volunteer guides from Efficiency Capital (EC) and CoPower led tours, which is how I managed to check out the “bells and whistles” of building energy efficiency. Here are a few highlights:

Low Emissivity Glass


From the outside, the glass surrounding Harbourfront Centre Theatre seems no different than glass on other buildings. However this glass is double-glazed and tinted with an extremely thin layer of “heat mirror” coating. “Double-glazed” means there is an air gap between the two panes of glass. Air itself is a powerful insulation material when “sandwiched”. The mirrored coating reflects heat and therefore warms the indoor environment in winter, then cools it in summer. This coating acts almost like as a third pane of glass, making this double-glazed model roughly equivalent to a triple-glazed version in terms of insulation performance.

LED Lighting

Thanks to major technology advances, the price of light-emitting diode (LED) lighting has dropped significantly over the past five years. The advantages of LEDs include, but are not limited to, less watts consumed per lumen, more robust performance, longer life and less environmental impact. This conversion has reduced GHG emissions by 13 tonnes a year.

Building Automation System


Building Automation Systems (BAS) are increasingly being used to optimize building energy efficiency. These systems automatically control heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC), along with lighting and other systems. The result is improved occupant comfort and operational efficiency. This guarantees lower utility costs while prolonging the life of building equipment. Carbon dioxide sensors are embedded in the HVAC system at Harbourfront Centre Theatre. So while the audience enjoys a performance, the BAS estimates how many people are in the room by examining the concentration of CO2 in the air. This helps determine the optimal climate control solution. Ventilation fans assisted by Variable Frequency Drives (VFD) also adjust their speeds to the size of the audience.

Solar Art Glass


The double-glazed tinted “heat mirror” feature looks very different from the inside. Canadian artist Sarah Hall created 119 hand-painted solar panels installed on the building’s east side, that make a stunning art installation. The 360 screen-printed images and photos portray a fascinating visual history of Lake Ontario.

The artwork is beautiful and functional. This was the first building in Toronto to install solar photovoltaic panels between layers of glass in this way. The system capacity is a relatively modest at 1.5 kilowatts but the ingenuity of the design has sparked a lot of interest and a growing number of buildings are starting to request similar installations.

Behind the Greening of Harbourfront Centre

So how did Harbourfront Centre, a non-profit, pay for all these building upgrades? They used an innovative financing tool called the Energy Savings Performance Agreement (ESPATM). Efficiency Capital (EC) is a Toronto-based company that finances and oversees energy efficiency building upgrades using the ESPATM. EC partners with pre-qualified engineering firms to provide turnkey building efficiency upgrades with no upfront cost. EC earns back its investment by taking a percentage of the utility cost savings.

The Atmospheric Fund is a non-profit organization that invests in urban solutions to address greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution through grant-making, impact investment and community collaboration. The ESPATM was developed by TAF and EC is the sole licensee. TAF is a key stakeholder and shareholder in EC.

CoPower partners with energy efficiency and clean energy development firms on projects that reduce carbon emissions while generating returns for investors. CoPower also sells green bonds that help pay for projects like the Harbourfront Centre upgrades.