New approaches to improve energy efficiency in buildings through new building codes could lower greenhouse gas emissions and improve productivity and health.

In August 2017, in a sleepy New Brunswick village, provincial and territorial ministers of energy and mines joined Minister of Natural Resources Jim Carr in signing on to a plan that promises to quite literally transform Canada’s cities and communities.

When it was released, Build Smart ─ Canada’s Buildings Strategy barely raised an eyebrow beyond architecture and development circles. But the plan is remarkable. It commits Ottawa to develop — and the provinces and territories to adopt — a series of model building codes requiring increasingly higher levels of energy efficiency. Under the plan, by 2030, every new building going up in the country will be required to meet a net-zero-energy-ready level of performance.

In other words, in just over a dozen years or so, new buildings will be so well-designed and carefully built that they should be able to meet all of their energy needs with renewable energy either generated on-site or nearby. (Builders of these homes aren’t actually required to install solar panels, just to build to a level where they could be used.)

A handful of Canadian buildings are already delivering this level of performance, including those built to the rigorous but voluntary standard known as the Passive House standard. These buildings include a four-story, 42-unit Ottawa residence called Karen’s Place, which houses people with severe mental illness. In Whistler, British Columbia, the Lost Lake Passive House, built for the 2010 Olympics, also meets a net-zero energy-ready level of performance. In its first year, high in the province’s frosty Coast Range, the building’s owners paid just $325 total for heating and cooling, about $27 a month.

Buildings that perform at this level are still relatively rare in Canada. That said, many companies have been building “beyond the code” for years and have figured out winning strategies and approaches to sharply increase energy performance using insulation, windows and doors, and air barriers, among others.

To be sure, there will be a learning curve as industry learns how to build to a higher standard. But the benefits to all Canadians will be massive.

Improvements to productivity and health

Since buildings contribute 17 percent of Canada’s greenhouse-gas emissions, we simply won’t meet our Paris Agreement commitment without bold action on efficiency. And higher-performing buildings will do more than fight climate change. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that they improve productivity and health as they circulate more fresh air to those who live, work and learn in them. Compared with today’s buildings, they’ll be more comfortable, durable, and — take note, urbanites who regularly endure car alarms and noisy neighbours — quieter.

Regulations can be a fair and effective way to improve building performance in one fell swoop. The Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes — established by the National Research Council — concluded years ago that energy-efficiency requirements in codes can influence up to 81 percent of energy use in houses and up to 68 percent in other buildings.

To reach our net-zero energy-ready target, policy-makers will need to establish fair, predictable, and clear energy performance metrics and benchmarks. Through computer simulations and real-world air-tightness testing, builders will have to demonstrate that their projects will meet those thresholds.

The building sector can’t be expected to transform its practices overnight, so the commission is recommending a tiered, or stepped, approach. Just as the name suggests, a stepped regulation establishes a hypothetical “staircase” of increasing energy-efficiency performance. At each step, builders must demonstrate they have met a range of metrics on energy consumption, energy intensity, air-tightness, efficiency of heating, cooling and ventilation systems, and more. The higher the step a jurisdiction requires, the more efficient the buildings must be. There’s no wiggle room, or space for interpretation; a project either meets the prescribed step, or it doesn’t.

Both Toronto and Vancouver have adopted such an approach with the Toronto Green Standard and Zero Emissions Building Strategy. And in December 2017, British Columbia became the first province to adopt a stepped approach.

BC embraces the “stepped” approach

The BC Energy Step Code is a standard and provincial regulation that local governments are welcome to use to incentivize or require a level of energy efficiency in new construction that goes above and beyond the requirements of the base BC Building Code. Since the BC Energy Step Code entered into force, 26 local governments, representing 70 percent of new housing starts in the province, have either begun consulting with builders on the regulation or have already put it to work.

At least for now, higher-performing homes — that is, those that perform significantly better than code but not quite at a net-zero energy-ready level — do cost a little more to build. The extra cost can range from next to nothing to between 2 and 6 percent, depending on the type of building, where it is located, the builder’s level of experience and availability of products.

This slightly higher up-front cost has slowed the adoption of high-performance buildings. In BC, provincial agencies and local governments have been working to address this with extensive training and incentive programs. (The Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes addresses the question of cost of energy-efficiency requirements in a recent policy paper.)

These costs will likely come down as more such buildings get built. Materials such as very high-performance windows and doors are expected to become more readily available. Builders will begin to finesse the skills needed to do the trickier aspects of high-performance construction. Sealing a new home to exceptional air-tightness levels, for example, requires hands-on coaching and the right materials.

Additional measures might also be needed to target financing, for builder training and manufacturer innovation. On the latter point, British Columbia is on the case, with a new program that aims to give a leg up to the province’s window-manufacturing sector.

In its paper, the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes endorses the stepped approach to energy-efficiency performance, and British Columbia is demonstrating the model. For example, as of July 1, 2018, three neighbouring Metro Vancouver local governments will require all new homes to meet step 3 of the BC Energy Step Code. This effectively creates a regional market for builders, designers and manufacturers to construct higher energy-performance buildings and building products.

Work begins on a national step code

The commission’s new Standing Committee on Energy Efficiency has since taken the baton from Canada’s energy ministers. It’s working on a science-backed, evidence-based policy roadmap to a national step code, targeting 2020 for its release as Canada’s Buildings Strategy directs.

Energy-retrofit funding programs will be important to meeting our climate targets, but the most cost-effective time to invest in a building’s energy efficiency is when it is built (the same applies to low- or zero-carbon heating systems). Given that hundreds of thousands of homes and other buildings go up across Canada each year, tackling efficiency with regulation — with consistent metrics across the board that send a steady, predictable signal to industry — will yield benefits that last for decades.

A stepped approach provides a flexible policy framework for provinces and territories while leading the country towards its net-zero energy-ready target. Vancouver, Toronto, and now British Columbia have shown it can be done. It’s now up to the rest of Canada to follow suit.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Douglas Baldan.


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