Empowering municipalities to adopt net zero building codes

Webinar on November 4, 2022

Learn about the top barriers and enablers to adopting the 2020 Model Codes. Kevin Lockhart, Research Manager at Efficiency Canada, shares the major findings of The Municipal Guide to Net-Zero Energy Ready Building Codes – what’s in the codes, what’s not in the codes, what energy conservation measures are typical at each tier, what tools each city has at their disposal and what municipalities can do. 

The Municipal Guide to Net-Zero Energy Ready Building Codes was enabled by funding from the Federations of Canadian Municipalities and Low-Carbon Cities Canada.


Kevin Lockhart, Efficient Buildings Lead, Efficiency Canada


Emilie Grenier, Engagement Manager, Efficiency Canada


Kevin Lockhart: So today there’s four areas around Canada’s new tiered energy codes that I’d like to discuss.

The first is the Net Zero energy codes have arrived, and so why a guide for municipalities? Next, where does the momentum for Net zero energy ready codes come from? What’s in the model codes that provinces are now adopting? And also what actions can municipalities take to drive the uptake of the upper tier?

One thing to note before we get started, I’d like to bring attention to Ontario’s bill C 23, the More Homes Built Faster Act. The bill really is intent on encouraging density and more affordable housing. However inadvertently or not, how did the effect taking away municipal authority to consider sustainability in the development process?

This has helped throughout the years through things like the Toronto Green Standard and others specifically around the GTA has helped the municipalities consider sustainability in the development process and also helped ensure affordable energy efficient and climate resilient housing.

The bill would effectively gut the green development standards that these cities and communities have carefully crafted to support their climate commitments. And while this is an Ontario issue, it also highlights that municipal powers related to the building sector are necessary and assured.

And over the last few years we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of building energy efficiency. But I guess the pressure continues to advance and protect those standards and I think an issue or a potential issue across the country is: there is a danger that progress made in those last several years will be rolled back or could be rolled back.

You can visit the TAP website or our own Efficiency Canada website to find more information on how to take action and really this in part speaks to the reason for a municipal guide to zero energy ready codes. We have to continue forward momentum and also prevent any issues and mean municipalities really play a central role. So we know that nationally our building sector accounts for a better quarter of Canada’s total final energy.

Tier codes offer a framework for increasing the energy efficiency of newly constructed buildings at every tier.

The stepped approach starts with the base tier one, and that tier is roughly equivalent to any CD 2017 or the National Building Code 2015. It then moves upwards through the tiers towards the net zero ready standard. And that is a building that’s so energy efficient that it can meet its own energy needs with the addition of onsite renewables.

And in doing so, it offers all those in the building sector a roadmap for where we’re going and for when tiers offer confidence in the market really by offering regulatory certainty and an anchor by which to develop a long term strategy. So this means, from technical leadership to education and incentive programs, that certainty is key.

It helps builders, developers, and manufacturers, and of course local governments prepare to meet the market’s needs and invest in their businesses and for the workforce for themselves. Tier codes also offer a significant degree of flexibility for local governments having that smaller geography as well as the responsibility for land use and building code enforcement activities are well possessed then to shorten our runway to the net zero energy ready standard for new buildings.

Recognizing this, the municipal guide to net zero energy ready building codes aim at accelerating the uptake of high performance construction, but also the upper tiers of the tiered code. It’s meant to provide information and tools specifically for municipal officials and those tools and information that they need to support the adoption of those years.

The guide builds on past research projects which have helped identify three areas of influence. First is the federal government. In terms of the federal government we know there’s a clear need for strong building codes with clear requirements and multiple pathways to low energy building.

And with the 2020 codes, we have a framework for such in place. However, we also know that the federal government is limited when it comes to the stick part of the care sticks and sermon’s approach. What I mean by that is that there’s limited tools that the federal government can use to force upper tier adoption.

Then we move to the provinces and we can see that the provinces are also challenged with adoption and implementation of 2020 model codes. And this is largely because of either concerns about the rate of frequency of code adoption or the perceived impact adoption will have on industry and affordability.

So this causes a risk of a leg when it comes to adopting the upper tiers of the tiered codes. Given that almost 650 municipalities have now declared a climate emergency, it really places municipalities at the center. Building energy efficiency is a core part of their response to the climate, emergency and stringent building energy codes being one of those tools that local governments can use to reach their climate targets.

And in doing so, it also helps communities deliver low carbon buildings that improve the health and resilience as well as the livability of the community. What we would like to see is that municipalities are either as part of their province or pushing their province to adopt an ambitious tier or municipalities integrating the tiers into voluntary standards driven by the municipality.

Municipalities can then help make sure that they go beyond the status quo of building performance as it stands today.

So Canadian municipalities, clearly they’re on the front lines of extreme weather events, and we’ve seen that in the past few months in the form of things like heat doms or flooding or drip. Municipalities are also the end user are responsible for the execution and implementation of international, national provincial commitments, each of which signal an increasingly prominent role for those values.

So first we have the Pan-Canadian for Clean Growth and Climate. And this is important because the signal, the change in building codes from those that are designed to create a minimum standard towards codes that use tiered or steps to reach a stretch goal. It also saw provinces and territories commit to the net zero energy ready standard or to adopt neter energy in any building codes by 2030.

We also have the regulatory reconciliation and cooperation. And this is important because it saw provinces and territories again committing to implement the 2020 national codes. But within two years of their publication, we also have the 2020 mandate letters, which are notable because before these mandate letters, there was no ministerial oversight, or building code development implementation. With the 2021 mandate letters, there are now two ministers responsible for such mandates to see the successful implementation of the 2020 model codes. We also have international reports and documents those being the IA net zero by 2050 roadmap for the global energy sector, as well as the latest I PCC report, both of which have emphasized a renewed urgency to decarbonize the building sector.

And we also have the federal government led National Green building strategy which places a renewed focus on building standards and the policies that are needed to reach net zero. We also have the net zero Building Code acceleration fund, which was announced this year which I’ll touch on a little later.

Each of these commitments and actions place Canadian municipalities in the role of catalyst in the building sector. The codes are one of the keys for municipalities because they present the opportunity to create good local jobs and also save residents money that would otherwise be sent on energy costs.

And it’s not necessarily a top down priority either. We’ve seen through polling with Abacus data that there is widespread support for net zero building codes in all provinces nationally. About 70% of Canadians strongly support or support net zero energy ready building codes.

And this speaks to the recognition of the Canadian popula, that there are benefits to a more comfortable home or building with fewer graphs, better indoor air quality and protection from increasing energy prices better buildings more built to more stringent energy standards also increase the resilience of those buildings in the face of extreme climate events.

So stepping into what’s in the codes. So the National Energy Code for buildings and the National Building Code are both the foundation for Canada’s first National Tiered Energy Codes, released this past March. And as we’ll see, they clearly set up the building requirements for years in advance so that all those involved from construction trains two municipal counselors can prepare for future changes in the building code.

First with the neb. So the NECB typically applies to part three buildings. Those that exceed three stories in height and the 2020 NECB has four tiers of performance improvement. The baseline tier one is a 3 to 5% improvement over the previous code, the NECB 2017, and this is important to note, a number of provinces have already indicated that they’ll adopt tier one of the 2020 NECB.

We need more ambition than maintaining the status quo, however, and that’s where the tiers come in as we move upward through the tiers. Tiers two, three, and four use 75, 50 and 40% of the base tiers energy use respectively. And in terms of what’s in the code, in the guide we’ve group changes into three categories.

First being mechanical systems and then building envelope and interior and exterior lighting. In terms of the changes, the mechanical system updates include those related to the continuous insulation of HVAC systems, and also remove parts of the trade path that were not previously in use. And in keeping with the envelope first approach the 2020 codes also include better direction for voluntary air leakage testing and references to updated test and standards. There’s also small reductions in the U values for both wall assemblies and windows. And finally there’s updates to lighting requirements that help code align with what’s available in the market today.

In terms of the national building code it typically applies to residential buildings, and so the 2020 codes introduce updates to HVAC performance requirements as well as new requirements for voluntary air tightness testing. There’s also new references to the Energuide rating program as a compliance path.

There’s also new introduction of the tiered energy requirements at each of the five tiers. And again, each tier is associated with a reduction in energy use from the base tier in the form of a reference as modeled to the prescriptive requirements of that tier. And these changes are also aligned with several well known voluntary standards a few of which you can see on the screen.

There’s also envelope improvements required at each tier. So these envelope improvements are in the green boxes to the right. These are intended to capture the increased benefits of a sound envelope. Things like for example, retaining heat in the building in the event of a winter power outage. There’s also many things not in the model codes, however it’s the tier framework that’s really the important first step towards the market transformation of building sector.

It provides that roadmap that’s so vital. The things not in the current iteration of the code are mandatory air tightness testing. And this is an important measure that will remain voluntary in the codes despite what our broad public support that we saw in the January 2020 public review. There’s also not an absolute energy performance approach. Something like an energy intensity target. This approach would be preferred to the existing references approach largely because it drives a greater emphasis on whole building energy efficiency and also incentivizes passive energy measures.

And this helps lead to more resilient buildings for the occupants. The code system is exploring the use of absolute energy metrics for uses of code compliance tool. And this would be something that we can comment on in the public reviews leading up to the release of the 2025 code.

There’s also no greenhouse gas emissions requirement. And so each code requirement must be linked to a code objective, and currently there’s no code objective that would allow for the consideration of either operational or embodied emissions in the code. This is also changing, however there’s been a policy task force put together to review climate change mitigation, and also a code change request, add emission objectives to the code.

Each of these are necessary also for the alterations to existing building code and the net zero emissions code, both of which are expected by 2025. There’s also not a EV or renewable readiness requirement. And after most basic, these requirements would help make sure that the electrical capacity and infrastructure for either ev, or renewable readiness is in place at the time of construction.

At the time of construction, these would be relatively minor changes, but they would dramatically reduce the future cost to involve ev charging or renewable energy sources. Each of these measures while not in the code today, can be advocacy points for the 2025 code cycle or things that provinces could potentially introduce as amendments in the adoption process or that municipalities could address through bylaws or green development standards.

So we’ve seen what’s in the code and also what’s not. And so let’s move into how municipalities can help make the tiered codes more effective and accelerate the adoption of the upper tiers.

So the first way to do so is through compliance enforcement, and compliance with the building code is enforced by local governments acting in the capacity of authority. Having jurisdiction and compliance is a challenge across all municipalities. However, without effective compliance enforcement, there would be little value in implementing the more stringent tiers.

Municipalities can boost the effectiveness of the tiered codes regardless of the tier that the province would adopt by engaging early and often with their building sector. This helps reduce friction related to compliance, as well as increased consistency in the permit process.

Municipalities can also help reduce barriers in compliance such as those related to energy modeling. And this is where utilities can really help play a role in by helping to build capacity through things like offering energy modeling, coaching for building officials and others. This is an approach that’s been used in both BC and Ontario and has really been effective in helping to increase the confidence and consistency in the permit review process.

Municipalities can also help leverage voluntary programs, which I mentioned earlier. These voluntary programs can be used to demonstrate compliance or reduce the burden on building officials, and it also helps the municipalities can then take advantage of the expertise already built into those energy efficiency programs already on the market.

And finally, municipalities can help conduct compliance studies. And so these compliance studies can help set a baseline both in residential and commercial building. These studies help to identify trends in code enforcement, but also highlight common areas of non-compliance or areas that would would be helpful for workforce training opportunities.

In terms of directly supporting adoption municipalities first and foremost can encourage our province to adopt the upper tier.

As I mentioned, the the codes are released this past March, but we’ve only seen a handful of provinces announcer public review processes so far, or announce their intentions to adopt specific tiers of the 2020 model codes. This means that there’s still time for municipalities to voice their preference and advocates to voice their preference for tier adoption.

I guess the scenario that we wouldn’t want to see is an adoption of the lower tiers that just continue the status. Or perhaps even weakened stringency of existing building codes. So over the coming months, as provinces assess their building sector, municipalities can highlight the strength of existing municipal building centers.

And through things like market readiness and the aforementioned code compliance studies demonstrate the capacity of their markets. Municipalities can also find other ways to adopt a building code tier above the provincial floor or reference those tiers and so for the first, only select provinces permit their municipalities to implement local building codes or select different tiers of the code.

There are other tools available, however, such as green development standards. Bylaws can also be used that either require or encourage or incentivize new construction to the upper tier. And finally, where appropriate, municipalities and advocates can also pressure their provinces to seek amendments in the adoption process.

As provinces go through the adoption process, there can be opportunities to make amendments, and these amendments can be used to reintroduce things like mandatory air tightness testing, or introduce new measures such as zero carbon heating and hot water requirements, or electric ready initiatives.

As I mentioned coming back to the net zero Building code Acceleration fund municipalities as well as national organizations or third party organizations can also help leverage federal support. And so there’s been a flurry of funding opportunities announced over the past few months many of which are intended to encourage increase building en energy performance.

And this includes the net zero Building Code Acceleration fund. This fund’s expected to be released by the end of the year. It’s really aimed at encouraging up tier adoption and compliance. Potential activities would include things like market readiness and training opportunities. And this could include things like workshops and training that help address industry concerns largely around costing and technical feasibility.

And the message that we’re hearing from NR Canada, not natural resources to Canada, who I guess oversees the fund; that applicant should be ambitious and also demonstrate how they can go above and beyond planned activities to encourage the upper tiers. The next step that municipalities can take is to remove barriers even if they’re minor.

And so local government land use policies may require adjustments to support the upper tiers. This includes things like addressing potential barriers in zoning and land use policies such as setback requirements that may limit the construction of thicker wall cavity needed for highly insulated buildings or other barriers that might limit innovation in the building form or construction process.

And so this could include things like restricted design guidelines. Each of these are minor challenges, but they may set back the the accelerated pace or the uptake of construction built to either the opportunities or net energy ready standards. Municipalities can also help build awareness of the standard and in the guide point to the success of the BC energy sub code.

Picking up on that, municipalities can offer their local builders plain language descriptions of tiered code requirements, and also include in these explanations things like presentation templates and diagrams that local champions can then take and you use to explain the code to time industry as well as government decision makers.

And finally municipalities can align their green development standards or their construction standards with the model codes. And as mentioned, model codes are tier based. And by allowing GDS requirements or incentives with the upper tiers, they’ll thereby encourage projects that demonstrate the feasibility of high performance buildings.

And this could also again, go a step beyond and include things like low carbon building materials or electric vehicle charging and readiness requirements for new construction. And that wraps up the presentation aspect. I’m looking forward to the discussion.

Allison Mostowich: So the understanding of a net zero energy building is that it produces additional energy from renewables like solar in the summer to balance grid energy used in the winter. So does the model break down if every building becomes net zero energy? Why does it matter if an individual building is net zero energy ready?

If the grid energy supplying it is zero emission?

Kevin Lockhart: Thank you. Two things work in parallel there. One is that we gradually elevate the standards required four buildings and reduce energy use in buildings. And as a byproduct, emissions do have to be addressed directly.

And there are movements towards that. But as we get to that net zero energy ready standard there is a vague or ambiguous definition of net zero energy ready. And I use the one that included on site renewables. But other interpretations do include having clean energy systems and that’s where the second part of the equation we look at at the electric electricity grid and fuel mix.

Given that it varies so widely in provinces, we want to get each building to net zero energy ready. And then based on either local conditions or the fuel mix of an electricity grid in a province, the net zero energy ready standard will help either those buildings become net zero through their onsite renewables or through the clean energy maps.

Allison Mostowich: Let’s circle back to the guides. So can you just talk a little bit about. The guide itself and how it’s meant to help municipalities as well as where they can go for more help or to learn more about this.

Kevin Lockhart: So we worked with the atmospheric fund over the last three years and really that was aimed at advancing building codes through the federal government, through the mono code development process.

As we move through adoption we are working with the problems as well, and as I mentioned our Ashon Building Codes Council. And then the final part of that puzzle is the municipalities. And the municipalities are responsible for compliance enforcement.

And in turn we turned to people within municipalities, so practitioners within municipalities that work in building and planning departments and so on. And they helped identify where the issues are and where the challenges may lie and in large that was in communicating the importance of building codes and in particular tier codes and zero injury ready building codes to the elected officials.

And stepping back from that, you can imagine a newly elected official on a local council who may not have a high degree of energy literacy. The guide is intended for those staff to have in their hands to be able to pass to the elected officials or reference specific pages of what’s in the codes and why they’re important in terms of where to turn for help.

So we have the LC3 centers and I would point you to the LC3 website for more information and how to find your particular center. And then we also have things like Efficiency Canada. We’ve been developing more of our municipal action and we do have a municipal newsletter now.

And also looking at different issues different areas that take action. And building a community around net zero energy ready building codes and helping to to advance them either through municipality, through the action on building codes council members or or through the public review process.

And in terms of that last aspect of public review process as they roll out we’re working with our partners in the provinces to share that information and help provide the disability information or the proposed changes for advocates like yourself.

Allison Mostowich: Nigel is wondering if there are any measurable metrics for each of the tiers that you can think of. So he’s saying, for example, passive hosts as six ACH at 50 Pascals.

Kevin Lockhart: Yeah. So it’s largely based off the references approach, which takes a building model to the prescriptive measures listed at the base tier and then a percentage over. And so it is a challenge, although there are resources out there that compare it to things like an EUI. But it is very dependent on a number of variables including location and and whatnot. And I will keep an eye in terms of resources to point you to how they compare in terms of ach. I can speak to that in that, we try to include that in the guide and given the regional variances of a large country like Canada those measures and and also costs were very difficult to distill down into a national guide.

Allison Mostowich: So Dan’s wondering about minimum sizes of homes. He’s saying that, it seems like the average size of homes are getting larger and there’s a trend about tiny houses. So moving the needle on ender is the most important point in getting to net zero.

Could there be smaller homes considered? Could that be a part of the codes at some point?

Kevin Lockhart: Yeah. I believe the threshold is homes under 300 square meters. There’s a recognition that is more challenging to reduce the energy use in those buildings. And so there are credits or allowances for the construction of smaller homes.

In terms of limiting the size of the home or the building itself, I think that’s an interesting discussion that’s evolving more and I have heard it tangentially in code discussions.

But at the same time as I mentioned, it’s beyond the I guess the purview of the building code. And I think to address that, we can see the trend lines on home sizes. But it is an important discussion. I’m not sure what the venue would be for that.

Allison Mostowich: And then Jo’s also mentioning that the setback requirements for houses seem to be getting closer and closer together as well. And he’s wondering if you’ve heard anything about the being commissioned on building and fire code studying this issue and it’s implications on being able to do construction of thicker walls.

Kevin Lockhart: And obviously we wanna see the construction of new buildings to be energy efficient, have ample insulation when we go to retrofit those homes in a number of years. And we can already see it. I can see it, my own community is quite close together that, that makes that exterior installation approach much more difficult in the future.

Allison Mostowich: Pam’s saying the biggest argument against tiered code adoption or the very slow adoption we’re seeing is related to affordability. And she’s wondering if there’s any detail on the guide regarding affordability and how to counter this argument.

Kevin Lockhart: I think it’s first to acknowledge that there’s a number of different facets of the affordability equation. And so just looking at it in a fairly narrow terms of tier codes and building codes.

I think that when we look, there’s a number of different factors versus the we have seen in the past. And when we speak of the challenge interiors, I would rather place the emphasis on the upper tier because that seems to be where the challenge comes. And so above tier three on the national building code side in terms of the capital cost, the cost to construct that building we’ve seen the margin come down.

We’ve seen it come down on both part three and part nine buildings to at par or almost at par. And this is a market transformation, exercise. And so we’ll see over the years as we get to that 2030 timeline in which the provinces have already committed to adopting the net zero energy standards, we should see those buildings built apart.

And there’s a decreasing gap between the two costs. However, even if we acknowledge that there, there is a capital cost increase In effect, what a net zero building does is free the occupants from having to pay increased energy costs over the long term.

If we look at the the savings from say a lower tier building or a a base today base code building there are savings in the capital cost, but then we see a longer lifetime operating expense.

And I would also add that we can expect that in terms of for affordability, that the building industry will adapt. And in terms of both energy and emissions, reducing both, we’ll see that the industry can and will be able to deliver those buildings at an affordable cost.

Affordability the caveat of being today’s cost, not not necessarily going further to the purchase price of the house or things like that.

Allison Mostowich: So Jay’s wondering about thoughts on energy efficiency codes for existing buildings for the 2025 code cycle. Or even just what work you know is going on for existing buildings. Can you share some of that?

Kevin Lockhart: So we have the alterations to existing buildings code, which was it’s expected by 2025. And work is going underway. It’s at the task group level and the working group level. And those code requirements are being developed now.

One of the challenges with the AEB is that to meet our 2030 and 2050 climate commitments, we know that we drastically have to increase the pace and the scale of energy retrofits. The AEB will be a voluntary trigger. It means that if you’re already doing work, that there will be energy requirements as well that that voluntary trigger won’t be fast enough for us to meet those 2050 climate commitments. And what we’re looking at as an organization and others are doing the same, is the role for building performance standards. And can we look at what might be the worst offending buildings or the highest submitting buildings And and address those more quickly. And alongside adequate support, be able to address existing buildings at the lowest performer level first.

Allison Mostowich: So we’ve got one here talking about resilience considerations being brought into the tiered codes. And just noting that it’s becoming more of a pressing issue as we see extreme weather events due to climate change.

To what extent are you seeing these resilience considerations on the code?

Kevin Lockhart: So I think the largest way that they’re considered currently is again, in the upper tiers with the envelope requirement in the nbc. Just recognizing that passive measures such as daylighting or increased insulation and wall assembling helps in terms of retaining heat in the building.

And looking at things like extreme weather events, either hot or cold. And then also there are movements afoot to look at overheating and ways to address overheating in buildings as it becomes more of a challenge in non-traditional areas.

And also ventilation I’m sure folks in BC know the importance of sound ventilation during things like fire events. And again, tightening up the envelope of the building and then adding adequate ventilation is a measure that will help the indoor air quality through those events.

Allison Mostowich: So what would you say to someone completely new to this topic? What is key to understand about the codes and changes anticipated?

Kevin Lockhart: I would say that the tier codes are not more regulation, but they’re clear regulation.

They set up the standards to 2030. And so that’s important because while it may seem daunting to have all new construction to net zero energy ready standards we do have that runway. We do have a long time to prepare for that. And we know that as humans, we know as Canadians, we can innovate and we can construct buildings to high standards and so given that long timeline we can start preparing now and we can make our buildings a positive contribution to the environment in time.





You have Successfully Subscribed!


You have Successfully Subscribed!


Sign-up to get the latest in energy efficiency news! 

You have Successfully Subscribed!


Thank you!

Get Involved!

You have Successfully Subscribed!


Thank you!