If Net-Zero Buildings Are the Goal, Building Codes Are the Lever

The clock is ticking on the next opportunity to introduce state-of-the-art national and provincial/territorial building codes that support the push to a post-carbon economy.

But while the federal budget released last month reflects the 2020 release date for the next version of the National Building Code of Canada, it focuses only on adapting to the impacts of climate change, “integrating climate resiliency into the design and rehabilitation of public infrastructure”. That’s important work, but it misses the opportunity to introduce tougher building energy efficiency targets, ideally by embracing a net-zero target for new and, eventually, existing buildings.

The stakes are high—for the effort to control carbon pollution through energy efficiency, while limiting impacts on air, land, and water from energy production that would be minimized or prevented by reducing demand. The federal government has been clear about its interest in green infrastructure, including energy-efficient buildings. But not all efficiency standards are created equal, and it would be a missed opportunity if the next generation of Canadian building codes fell short of a net-zero standard.

It’s Also About the Provinces

But even a strong federal standard would just be the first chapter of a longer story. For the provinces, the National Building Code is just a guideline, a voluntary measure that they can adopt or ignore until they incorporate its provisions in their own codes.

Last month, the Globe and Mail told the story of a Toronto couple who set out to build their dream home, “a four-bedroom house constructed to achieve ambitious energy efficiency goals using innovative technology and smart design,” located in the built-up heart of Toronto’s North York suburb. The home will be built with commercially-available components, and the added capital cost—about 10 to 15% of the total project—will be recovered within a few years through reduced electricity, heating, and cooling bills.

“There are opportunities to make huge strides by using a range of technologies and design approaches—everything from increasingly inexpensive solar panels to passive cooling techniques, such as the use of awnings or wider overhangs,” the Globe reported.

“But in most of North America, and even provinces such as Ontario, which has adopted comparatively ambitious carbon reduction strategies, decision-makers have neglected to take full advantage of a policy lever that has driven dramatic changes in the carbon footprint of Northern European nations: the building code.”

Alberta Hits, Ontario Misses

In 2011 and 2012, Ottawa introduced new building energy efficiency standards. (They were an improvement over the previous, but still not net-zero.) Alberta boosted its efficiency standards for building envelope, heating and cooling systems, and water heaters in 2014. But when Ontario publishes its new code next year, the efficiency goals will still fall short of that home in North York—which means that anyone who really wants to get their energy use right has to rely on specialists, rather than falling back to the basic provincial standard.

Building science specialist Ted Kesik told the Globe that Canadian homes have the third-highest energy consumption in the world—in contrast to northerly Denmark, which has been working on energy-efficient buildings since the 1960s.

“The building industry in Canada has the worst R&D [research and development] record of any industry in the country,” Kesik said. “The high rise buildings we built in the 1960s perform better than what we’re building now. Tell me of any industry that would stand up and be proud to say that.”

Federal Leadership Can Make the Difference

There are two ways for the federal government to lead on this file.

The first is to set an example for the country by adopting Sierra Club Canada Foundation’s “audacious plan” to rebuild the Prime Minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive as a net-zero heritage retrofit.

The second is to make net-zero building standards a bottom-line expectation as federal and provincial/territorial governments work to craft a national climate plan.

At pre-budget consultations in her home riding of Ottawa Centre, Environment and Climate Change Minister Catherine McKenna made it clear that her officials had already spotted the opportunity to boost energy efficiency in social housing. That’s an excellent start.

But now’s the time to extend the principle to every building in the country. And with federal-provincial-territorial negotiations getting under way, this is the perfect moment to use the federal government’s convening power to insist on net-zero building standards, right across the country.


Diane Beckett
Interim Executive Director
Sierra Club Canada Foundation 

One Earth • One Chance

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