Towards Net-Zero: A Building Code Meeting for the History Books

Sep 12, 2019Guest Blogs





David Stonham is the Low Carbon Building Coordinator at the Ecology Action Centre, an environmental NGO in Halifax, NS.

His work focusses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions from buildings by increasing regional awareness of best practices and advocating for enhanced efficiency measures in the building code regulations.

Proposed changes to Canada’s Energy and Building Codes will lay the foundation for Canada’s Net Zero Energy Ready model code, which is key to Canada’s transition to a low-carbon economy

This fall the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes (CCBFC) will release proposed changes to the National Energy Code for Buildings (NECB) and the National Building Code (NBC), Section 9.36. (i.e. Energy Codes) for public consultation.

Normally, observers at meetings of the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes’ Standing Committee on Energy Efficiency (SCEE) can prepare for days of discussion over tiny minutiae, tedious to all but the biggest of building science geeks. However, from a climate action perspective, the two-and-a-half days of meetings in May of 2019 were one of the most exciting code discussions to ever take place in Canada.

The additions and amendments to the NECB and NBC, Section 9.36, must be approved by the voting committee members of SCEE, which was formed in early 2018 by combining the Standing Committee on Energy Efficiency of Buildings with the Task Group on Energy Efficiency of Housing and Small Buildings.

The voting members of the standing committee, consisting of representatives from regulatory, industry and general interest categories, including building professionals, engineers, utility representatives, and housing representatives sat around a “U” shaped table. Behind, a second row of seats is reserved for observers and National Research Council staff. Observers, mostly industry representatives, are welcome to respectfully ask questions and comment on discussions.

Energy efficiency requirements were first introduced into the national model codes in 1997, and most recently the National Energy Code for Buildings was updated in 2017. Updates to the codes must go out for public consultation before they are approved by the CCBFC. The next round of updates to the Energy Codes will go to public consultation this fall, with the new model codes being introduced in 2020 and adopted into legislation by the provinces and territories thereafter.

This meeting was particularly important because it made significant updates to the Energy Codes, and lay the foundation for enabling the provinces and territories to adopt a ‘Net Zero Energy Ready’ model building code by 2030 — a goal that the federal government committed to in the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change.

There is a large jump between the performance targets in the code that currently exists and what would be in a Net Zero Energy Ready Code. Therefore, it will be no surprise that the Standing Committee on Energy Efficiency had 100 amendments and 757 pages of agenda to get through in the two and a half days. The Chair of the meeting, Andrew Pride, commenced the meeting saying, “We are going to make building and energy code history in the next few days.” I feel confident saying that the standing committee did just that.


The most exciting aspect of the proposed changes is their carbon reduction potential. As buildings are responsible for almost a fifth of Canada’s GHGs, better building and renovating practices through better codes will have a very positive impact on Canada’s carbon footprint, while creating jobs and making buildings healthier. The proposed changes below are some of the key amendments that will have a notable impact on energy demand reduction in new builds.

The updated code includes an introduction of a tiered approach for energy efficiency in buildings. A tiered approach is new for the national code but it is a strategy that has already been used in Canada. BC’s building code, known as the “BC Energy Step Code,” uses the tiered approach. It allows for the building industry to see where the codes are heading and prepare accordingly. It also allows for the standardization of high performance buildings. Tiers were introduced for Part 9 of the code, meaning homes and small buildings (simple like a duplex), and in Part 3, larger buildings with significant occupancy (complex like a mall). Without tiers in the code, the code dictates the minimum standard or requirement that one can legally build. With tiers, the code standardizes higher performing buildings. It allows for self-selecting designers, builders, or contractors to achieve higher levels of performance than currently legislated.

 There are two kinds of tiers: Performance Tiers and Prescriptive Tiers. Prescriptive Tiers provide clear instructions to achieving the various energy performance levels, like following a recipe for a high performance building. Performance Tiers simply determine the level of energy performance the building must reach in comparison to the reference building (for example, 10% better or 40% better), and the builder uses energy modelling to prove that it has reached the higher performance levels.

If a building project follows the performance-based approach, the building must have an energy model and is subject to tests like air leakage testing. However, there is more flexibility to use innovative designs or technology in meeting performance-based targets. The proposed changes focus on energy reduction through improving the building envelope. As was said in the meeting, “We have a tendency to get bigger, better pumps to get the water out of the boat, when in fact, we just need to fix the boat. That’s what we need to do. That’s why the building envelope is important.”

SCEE proposed tiered performance targets for both Part 3 and Part 9 of the code, with the highest tier as the agreed upon Net Zero Energy Ready Tier. Buildings meeting the highest tier of performance will use roughly 70-75% less energy than the reference case building.

Due to the complexity of prescribing energy saving measures in larger buildings and the specialization of large building design, Part 3 only has performance-based tiers.

Part 9 of the code, small buildings and homes, has both performance based and prescriptive tiers, making the construction of energy-efficient small buildings more accessible. If a building project follows the prescriptive approach, air tightness testing is optional. To achieve certain tiers, using the prescriptive approach, a building must attain a certain number of points – for example, 10 points are needed for Tier 2. At the time of the meeting, it was clear how many points were needed for Tier 1 and 2, but points required for levels 3-4 were yet to be determined.

Mandatory air leakage testing in the prescriptive path of Part 3 buildings marks a win for low-carbon building advocates. Until this version of the code, total building air leakage was not regulated, though air barriers are currently mandated by code. With the introduction of air barriers to code, buildings became much tighter. But, installing an air barrier does not necessarily result in the airtightness required for a higher performing building, as the air barrier can still be full of penetrations from nails, windows, plumbing, electrical and other typical building enclosure penetrations. Mandatory air leakage testing, like energy modeling, will require increased capacity in the already fully-engaged workforce, but it is a promising first step and advocates should continue to push for in each new building, and in relevant renovated buildings. Air leakage testing is already mandatory for all buildings built using the BC Energy Step Code.

In another win, the performance compliance subsection of Part 9 ( Subsection 9.36.5) has been aligned with the EnerGuide Rating System. This simplifies the energy modelling process and opens the door for the Labeling and Benchmarking commitment in the Pan-Canadian Framework, with “the aim of requiring labelling of building energy use by as early as 2019.”


As buildings are responsible for 17% of Canada’s GHG emissions, regulating new construction through Canada’s Model Energy Codes is essential to ensure that we stop constructing buildings that require unnecessarily large amounts of energy to function [1]. If you are interested in learning more about the proposed changes to the codes, the public review of all the proposed changes will begin on October 22, 2019 and will be open until December 23, 2019.

FOLLOW updates on the timeline here.

The CCBFC will also soon be introducing a code for alterations to existing buildings, helping ensure that the existing building stock, when renovated, has improved energy consumption. While energy efficiency in new construction is very important, more energy savings are available in retrofitting the existing building stock. The majority of existing building stock will still be standing and used in 2050. With the Code for Alterations to Existing Buildings in development, we are on our way to meeting the Pan Canadian Framework commitment to “develop a model code for existing buildings by 2022.” This is certainly the next code development that we should all be paying attention to.


1. Environment and Climate Change Canada (2019) National Inventory Report 1990-2017: Greenhouse Gas Sources and Sinks in Canada.


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