September 29, 2017
Implementing BC’s Energy Step Code by municipalities is critical to enable the construction of energy efficient buildings, achieve meaningful carbon reductions, and to provide consumer choice that doesn’t exist with the minimum Code building stock.
Residents are currently being sold homes that cost like Ferraris, but perform like Ford Pintos. Real estate listings only provide buyers with the visually obvious elements like layout and cosmetic features like cabinets and counter tops, but offer no “what’s under the hood” information such as energy demand. This is important because performance affects both occupant comfort and energy costs an increasingly important consideration for housing affordability.
Most homes and buildings are built to minimum Building Code no matter the price. High end priced homes are built to exactly the same standard as all other homes. The problem with the Building Code is it doesn’t guarantee energy performance and there is no evidence it is the most cost effective way to build a house, particularly when considering both construction and operating cost.
While cabinets and counter tops go out of style and can be changed, the energy demands of an inefficient building envelope (outside walls, floors, and roof) last for generations. Once a building is constructed, it is unlikely that most envelope upgrades would pay for themselves over the lifetime of the building. The best time to build an efficient envelope for a building is when it is being built, which is when the increased cost is relatively marginal.
While governments commit to carbon reduction and it’s possible to economically build a home that uses 75% less energy than current practice (net-zero ready), it’s easy to conclude every building built today to minimum Code is a multi-generational mistake.
BC’s Building Energy Step Code developed in collaboration with local governments and the building industry is the pathway for local governments to reduce community carbon emissions, and achieve the Province of BC’s target of Net-Zero ready buildings by 2032. The Code consists of steps intended to be implemented in phases by local governments to provide the construction industry with transition time to build experience to progressively build more energy efficient buildings. The steps are performance based and are confirmed with both energy modelling and air tightness testing of the actual building (Air leakage, a measure of construction quality can contribute to over 30% of preventable heat loss!). The number of steps and performance requirements in the Code vary by building type.
As an example Part 9 low rise buildings have five steps:
Getting to Step 5 is possible and economically feasible today, but limited by the small number of skilled designers and trades people presently available to build to this level. This capacity however, is growing exponentially as a result of commitments by the City of Vancouver, Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, Okanagan College, developers, and BC Housing to build to the Passive House Standard – Step 5 today.
A costing study for BC Housing and the Energy Step Code Council found that achieving Step 3 was less than 3% (within annual fluctuations in construction costs) for most building types. In Climate Zone 5 such as the Thompson Okanagan region for example, Step 3 is achievable for all building types with less than 2.4% increase in construction cost over minimum code construction.
A group of building professionals (including the authors of the costing study) have started a campaign Three for All urging local governments to adopt Step 3 due to these results. Nido Design joins this call.
Implementing Step 1 however, may be the most transformative step as it will provide home buyers with that vital “what’s under the hood” information they don’t currently receive: the anticipated energy consumption and indication of construction quality of one home relative to another. This vital piece of information will create a market for homes that achieve greater energy efficiency much like the gas mileage sticker on the car. Better homes will be built, in turn increasing consumer choice because performance will now be measured and valued. Mandatory implementation of Step 1 is therefore a precondition to getting better buildings built offering consumers the option to buy energy efficient homes.
However, implementing Step 3 for most building types will provide greater value for performance and is achievable with existing construction techniques so there is little reason not to.
Building more efficient buildings has broader economic benefits to the community. Energy dollars for electricity and gas are mostly sent to utilities outside of the community. Energy dollars saved however, are more likely to be spent in the community. The local building community will have a competitive advantage through their experience in building better homes. These are exportable skills making tradespeople more resilient to fluctuations in the local real estate market.
Implementing the Energy Step Code by local governments is voluntary. Saanich, New Westminster, and Richmond have announced they plan to implement the BC Energy Step Code while many other municipalities are considering it including the City of Kelowna — one of the fastest growing cities in the country.
The case for Kelowna to do so as soon as possible couldn’t be stronger. In Kelowna’s current vigorous housing market, poor performing buildings are being produced at a record pace and being sold at record prices. Waiting to adopt the Step Code only holds the community further back from providing home buyers with critical performance information, meeting its carbon reduction targets, and locks more buildings into generations of high energy costs. For the construction industry, delaying wastes time required to ramp up their capacity to deliver net-zero ready buildings by 2032 — the whole point of having multiple steps instead of one!
Adopting the BC Energy Step Code will be a change to business as usual that will affect residents and the building industry differently. The best interests of society in consideration of what the industry requires to adapt to the Net-Zero 2032 target should decide how best to implement.
We answer some of the muddy questions that may come up as municipalities consider if and how they implement the Step Code in the following post prepared for the City of Kelowna’s consultation. The responses are generally applicable for communities throughout BC.
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