Want net-zero building codes in Canada?

It’s time to create the Net-Zero Building Acceleration Fund

Kevin Lockhart

Efficient Buildings Lead, Efficiency Canada

November 26, 2021

Blogs | News

  • As the 2020 model codes become available, we need to focus on accelerating adoption of the upper tiers and putting in place a robust compliance framework.
  • The federal government can provide national platforms that facilitate adoption and compliance for use by provinces, territories, and municipalities.
  • A Net-Zero Building Codes Acceleration Fund will further acceleration code adoption and compliance through support for market readiness for net-zero codes in provinces/territories and municipalities.

The Liberal Party’s 2021 platform included a commitment to: “accelerate the development of the national net-zero emissions model building code for 2025 adoption” (Forward, for Everyone, Liberal Party of Canada, 2021).

To date, British Columbia (BC) is the only province to have committed to a net-zero code. However, after extensive delays Canada’s first net-zero energy ready (NZEr) model codes, the “2020 model codes,” will soon be available to all provinces and territories.

We now have an opportunity to realize the federal government’s commitment by accelerating the adoption and implementation of the 2020 model codes in jurisdictions across Canada.

It’s time we created Net-Zero Building Code Acceleration Fund for provinces and municipalities across the country.

Here’s how.

The pathway to net-zero emissions

The 2020 model codes offer a progressive series of performance-based steps, like those of the BC Energy Step Code. Starting with a familiar base building code and moving upwards through the tiers, the energy used to operate the building is incrementally reduced. Consequently, the energy performance of the building increases with each tier.
At the highest tier, the 2020 model codes are intended to achieve net-zero energy-ready (NZEr) levels of performance. NZEr buildings are expected to be 80% more energy efficient than a building constructed to today’s code minimum, but do not yet have on or off-site renewable energy systems in place.

In the fall of 2021, a commitment in the Liberal Party platform set out to achieve a net-zero emissions building code for 2025 adoption. As a result, the federal government will need to provide unique performance standards that prioritize zero-carbon or (zero-carbon ready) heating and hot water systems, as well as zero emissions from construction materials, referred to as embodied carbon.

This net-zero emissions code must still be developed. In the meantime, the 2020 model codes are expected to be released by the end of 2021 and provide a pathway to a net-zero emissions building code. But first, the 2020 model codes must be swiftly adopted at the highest performance tier achievable, and all new buildings constructed in full compliance with all energy code requirements.”

Lessons from leading jurisdictions

Leading jurisdictions recognize that without the adoption of upper tiers in each province and territory and a robust compliance regime, stringent building energy codes will have a limited role in meeting their decarbonization objectives. And adoption doesn’t happen without a mechanism to fund it.

In 2009, the Obama administration enacted the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The Act tied stimulus funding to requirements directing states to adopt and implement stringent energy building codes, as well as state efforts to increase building energy code compliance, from 50% in most jurisdictions at the time, to 90% by 2017.
In Canada, a leading example of adoption and compliance funding is the province of BC where code related activities are supported through the province’s utilities. Utilities in the province have spent approximately $27 million over the last 5 years, including BC Hydro which has averaged almost 6% of their total Demand Side Management portfolio spending. These contributions are a primary reason why the province is now the only one to have committed to a net-zero building code.

These examples illustrate the need for early support for adoption and compliance activities. Long-term and consistent supports serve to de-risk adoption of the upper tiers of the model codes, verify that each building is achieving the energy and emissions reductions desired, and smooth the building sector’s transition to its net-zero future.

Federal government platforms

The federal government can provide higher confidence and trust in the feasibility and benefits of the 2020 model codes through the development of national platforms designed to support training and market readiness in each province and territory. These platforms enable lower levels of government acting in the role of authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), the municipality or province/territory responsible for enforcing building code requirements, to communicate long-term decarbonization objectives, track progress towards those objectives, increase building code expertise in their market, and streamline resources dedicated to compliance.

Author Andrew Pride recommended several federal platforms to enable tiered code adoption and implementation in Efficiency Canada’s report Tiered Energy Codes: Best Practices for Code Compliance. These include:

  1. Establishing a roadmap for buildings that defines a path to net-zero. This includes suggested timelines for adoption of the upper tiers (NZEr) of the tiered code.
  2. Developing a building code compliance portal, overseen by Natural Resources Canada, that provides data services such as energy audit quality assurance, aggregation of energy data to inform future policy priorities and incentive programs that reduce liability exposure for AHJs.
  3. Developing a national compliance database of building performance levels, compliance concerns and compliance tips, anonymized to protect the specific project information. This database can streamline resources for AHJs by offering valuable lessons learned, exception-handling, and best practices.
  4. Providing national energy compliance guidelines to increase consistency of the application and interpretation of energy codes between jurisdictions. The national guidelines should contain at a minimum:
    • Clarity on energy efficiency terminology,
    • Guidance on challenging compliance areas (e.g. thermal bridging),
    • Reference tools (checklists, software, etc.) to demonstrate compliance, and
    • Modelling parameters associated with energy performance.
  5. Establishing provincial and national networks of Subject Matter Experts (SME) that offer increased capacity for AHJs related to compliance, provide a platform to share experiences, and provide a means to share compliance related resources.

A Net-Zero Building Code Acceleration Fund

Under the Regulatory Agreement on Construction Codes, provinces and territories have agreed to the timely adoption of Canada’s national model building codes. Nonetheless the need to de-risk code adoption, particularly for provinces/territories to adopt upper tiers, remains. Adoption of the upper tiers, those at or approaching NZEr standards, is crucial to realizing deeper reductions in energy use and, as a result, achieving significant climate benefits.

This transition can be accelerated through the creation of a Net-Zero Building Codes Acceleration Fund of $200 million over 3 years to support market readiness for net-zero codes in provinces and municipalities. $200 MM is calculated by taking BC’s spending to support the Step Code over the past five years, pro-rating by national population, and collapsing into 3 years to meet 2025 target. These activities can include, for example, costing and compliance studies as well as capacity development in building trades and municipalities to support market readiness for net-zero codes in each jurisdiction.
More specific examples of activities such a fund can support include:

  1. Funding tiered energy code compliance mechanisms that reduce the financial impact of code compliance, accessible to all jurisdictions that adopt the model codes and scaled upwards for those jurisdictions adopting higher tiers.

    .
    For example, BC Hydro has provided incentives for the creation of checklists and templates for building officials, as well as building energy manager funding to assist municipalities in facilitating energy analysis for Energy Step Code compliance.

  2. Increasing resources for programs that address industry costing concerns and technical feasibility directly and proactively while also building capacity in the buildings sector. For example, expanding the Local Energy Efficiency Partnerships (LEEP) program to jurisdictions across the country.

    .
    Building on BC’s experience, provinces can leverage workshops and training to engage stakeholders early in the delivery of the tiered code adoption and implementation process to encourage higher take-up and more informed networks of builders, analysts, contractors, and officials.

  3. Assessing training needs for tiered energy codes to determine gaps and opportunities in tiered energy code compliance. Training should begin with building capacity amongst building officials, then extend to peripheral members of the buildings sector such as realtors, suppliers and manufacturers, and utilities.
  4. Development of builder field guides, checklists and other compliance tools that include illustrated examples of tiered energy code requirements, building science basics and best practices that reduce complexity and limit technical barriers.

Early intervention leads to deeper reductions in energy and emissions

Accelerating net-zero building codes is a clear first step in the government’s expanded climate mandate and one that demonstrates this government’s commitment following the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26). Through investments directed towards building code adoption and compliance the federal government can immediately bolster the capacity and effectiveness of the buildings sector and lock-in the structural changes that Canada needs to meet its commitment to cut greenhouse gas emissions and reach a net-zero emissions future.

Given the delays in publishing the 2020 model codes and the Liberal Party’s commitment in the last election to accelerate adoption, the government cannot expect the net-zero codes to be adopted. It needs a strategy to accelerate! The time is now.

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