Building Codes for New Buildings

Building codes are a regulatory instrument that set out the requirements for the design and construction of residential or commercial buildings. They ensure new construction meets minimum health, safety, and performance standards.

There are two types of building codes:

  • Model codes – a set of suggested rules and practices that are only considered law when adopted.
  • Adopted codes – model codes that have been enacted by a provincial, territorial, or municipal government.

In places where model codes are adopted into law, they are the building code for that jurisdiction and are considered the minimum requirement for health, safety and well-being as it relates to the construction and occupancy of buildings.

Building codes are enforced by the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). Through the building permit process, the AHJ reviews the submitted building plans for compliance with building codes.

What are the 2020 model building codes?

The National Research Council publishes model building codes that are available for adoption (with amendments and supplements) by provinces and territories, as well as municipalities with the relevant authority.

Energy efficiency in new construction is covered under the 2020 model codes. It include the National Energy Code for Buildings (NECB) for large buildings and the National Building Code (NBC) for low-rise residential buildings. Existing buildings will be covered under the Alterations to Existing Buildings code, expected to be published by the end of 2024.

In March 2022, the National Research Council published the latest version of the National Model Building Codes for new buildings. This “2020” version of the codes is an integral component of Canada’s climate action plan.

Why is this version of the codes different?

This version of the model codes includes performance “tiers” with the highest tier consistent with a net-zero energy-ready standard. Net-zero energy-ready means a building is so energy efficient that it can easily supply its own needs over the course of a year with the addition of on-site renewable energy or off-site clean energy.

This version of the code is not simply a minimum standard. It is a pathway to make all new buildings consistent with national “net zero” policy objectives.

This new building code framework is like the British Columbia Energy Step Code first introduced in 2017.

What is a building energy code and why is it important?

A building energy code is a regulatory standard that sets minimum efficiency requirements for new and renovated buildings and intended to result in reduced energy use and emissions over the life of the building. Energy codes are a subset of building codes, which establish baseline requirements and govern building construction.

Canadian buildings use a lot of energy to protect occupants from our harsh winters and hot summers. Our homes and places of work and recreation account for about a quarter of Canada’s total final energy consumption and approximately 18% of greenhouse gas emissions when emissions associated with electricity used in buildings are included.

In addition to offering a broad range of benefits, building energy codes affect up to 81% of energy use in houses and up to 68% of energy use in buildings and have come to be recognized as the quickest, cheapest and cleanest way to improve energy efficiency in the building sector. And, as energy use in buildings continues to rise over the next decade, building energy codes will continue to play a critical role in reducing energy waste and emissions associated with the energy buildings consume.

Net-zero building codes are supported in all regions

Polling by Abacus data for Efficiency Canada shows that net-zero energy-ready building codes are supported or strongly supported by 60-77% of Canadians in all regions. All provinces have public support in adopting the latest model codes.

How can provinces and municipalities improve the code?

As leaders in climate action, municipalities across Canada can leverage the 2020 model codes to advance building performance — decarbonizing the building sector and reaping the many benefits of the tiered framework for local industries and residents alike. Building codes can reduce emissions quickly, but they often move slowly, limiting the potential impact. Municipalities play a critical role.

Explore our municipal guides for everything you need to know about net-zero emissions building codes.

The urgent need to accelerate building code adoption

Every new building that is energy inefficient and uses fossil fuels adds to Canada’s GHG emissions. Modelling for Canada’s climate plan estimated that 9 Mt of GHG reductions would come from more stringent building codes by 2030.

Canada’s climate plan aimed for all new buildings to be net-zero energy-ready by 2030. In the 2021 federal election, the Liberal Party promised to “accelerate” this year for 2025 adoption and to add emissions to the code, which now solely considers energy use.

Today, only one province, British Columbia, has committed to a net-zero energy-ready and zero-carbon code by 2030, after years of work conducting outreach and preparing local markets.

A benefit of the tiered framework is that it can offer municipalities a path to go above provincial minimums, while also maintaining harmonization across the country. Yet, only British Columbia, Québec, and Newfoundland and Labrador have declared that municipalities can adopt tiers above provincial codes, and Manitoba and Nova Scotia state municipalities cannot adopt higher performance tiers (Table 52 in 2021 Provincial Energy Efficiency Scorecard).

How can the federal government accelerate net-zero code adoption?

Given the delay in publishing the model code and the promise to speed up adoption by 2025, the federal government has a responsibility to support market readiness in provinces and municipalities.

Efficiency Canada has long-advocated for a Net-Zero Code Acceleration Fund to support activities like studies on costs and compliance, and capacity building in building trades and municipalities. In early 2023, Canada launched a call for proposals for the Codes Acceleration Fund — $100M to help provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous governments and stakeholders decarbonize the buildings sector.

Next, the federal government can create national tools to make complying with the code easier.

Tiered codes deliver direct and immediate benefits to municipalities

With a tiered code, provinces, territories, and municipalities with jurisdiction over building construction have greater flexibility in how they implement the building code. This aspect of the tiered codes is particularly valuable for a number of reasons:

Municipalities looking to implement aggressive energy efficiency and carbon reduction strategies can choose a tier that meets the knowledge and capacity of their community — no need to develop unique building codes, or additional construction standards.

The workforce — carpenters, energy advisors, architects, and more — are given direction and focus to better help the workforce invest in themselves to build the knowledge and skills that pay off in the form of good local jobs.

Sets a clear and predictable path towards an end date, at which point each new building is expected to meet NZER standards. By signalling the desired end state, the 2020 codes provide the time and direction required to build capacity in the market over the coming years.

Municipalities have a standardized path by which to align supplemental standards, such as green development standards. The flexibility to adopt more stringent standards than other municipalities was a key factor in accelerating uptake of the BC Energy Step Code.

Fosters confidence in the market by offering regulatory certainty and an anchor for developing a long-term strategy. From technical leadership and coordination to education, incentives, and enforcement programs, certainty is key. It helps builders, developers, and manufacturers prepare to meet the market’s needs, invest in their business, and introduce innovative ways to deliver safe, affordable, high-performance buildings.

It’s easier for utilities and other program providers to align incentives with municipal, provincial, territorial, and federal climate commitments.

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