Fossil fuels burned to heat homes, energy used to cool office towers and electricity powering appliances in restaurants all contribute to the notable chunk of emissions coming from the building sector — around 18 per cent of Canada’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.
However, new building codes from the National Research Council aim to to have all new buildings constructed to net-zero energy ready standards by 2030. Meaning, a new building will be so efficient, it is “ready to supply all of its energy use from renewables or offsite clean energy sources,” explained Kevin Lockhart of Efficiency Canada, a non-profit based at Carleton University's Sustainable Energy Research Centre.
Originally expected in 2020 but released this week, the codes — which are updated every five years — set a pathway for new buildings in Canada to reach net-zero energy ready standards through a five-step approach that includes a slew of upgrades, such as improving the building envelope and installing more efficient windows.
The move to make buildings more efficient also makes them more resilient — improving something like the building envelope can help a building retain its heat during a power outage in the winter, keep buildings cooler during extreme heat events and keep pollutants out during forest fire season, said Lockhart.
Each step has a gradual increase in energy efficiency, leading up to the net-zero energy ready mark by 2030. At the 10 per cent tier, for example, a building's energy performance would need to be 10 per cent better than the minimum requirements from the last building code. Higher tiers may include changes to the building form, whereas lower ones may include measures such as efficient windows.
Lockhart said having a gradual pathway to net-zero is an important step for the sector. However, getting the codes adopted at a provincial level — and having enough funding to do so — is a barrier.
“I think the most exciting aspect is that the tiered code framework is here now. It really works as a progressive, performance-based series of steps that start with a familiar building code, much like what we currently have,” Lockhart said.
“And then through those steps, the energy performance of the building is raised incrementally and ultimately resulting in net-zero energy ready.”
Here's the breakdown on the new federal building codes, and the steps @EfficiencyCAN says are needed to get them implemented at a provincial level.
Building codes affect up to 81 per cent of energy use in houses and up to 68 per cent in buildings, making them an essential tool in reducing emissions, especially as energy use in buildings is set to go up over the next 10 years.
Since the codes are federal, provinces will be required to adopt them within approximately two years, working within the cycle of their building codes. Under the Canadian Free Trade Agreement, all provinces and territories agree to harmonize their building codes with national ones. So far, B.C. is the only province that has committed to its own net-zero code, but new buildings aren’t required to be net-zero until 2032 under its plan.
This set of codes doesn’t address existing buildings — an essential move, according to the Pembina Institute, which found a “renovation wave” to decarbonize Canada's buildings could not only make homes more livable but inject $48 billion into the Canadian economy over the next 20 years. A separate set of codes for existing buildings is set to come in 2025, explained Lockhart.
Canada-wide support for net-zero buildings, and the gaps that remain
At the same time the new codes were released, polling by Abacus Data for Efficiency Canada showed 60 to 77 per cent of Canadians support or strongly support net-zero building codes.
With the federal budget set to be released April 7, Efficiency Canada called on the government to create a Net-Zero Building Code Acceleration Fund of $200 million over three years to help provinces and the building industry reach net-zero energy ready standards for new buildings quicker. On Tuesday, the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, a federal report that includes targets for the oil and gas industry, among others, was released and included a commitment to launch the fund.
“It's really about helping provinces, territories and municipalities prepare their jurisdiction in terms of workforce training and development,” said Lockhart.
“... And making sure that the products are available in their jurisdiction.”
The next step, as far as Efficiency Canada is concerned, is for citizens to call on their provinces and municipalities to put the code into effect as soon as possible. The agency has produced a tool kit to help individuals and municipalities advocate for more efficient building codes.
As provinces adopt the code, they could include pieces that were left out of the federal code, such as mandatory airtightness testing, said Lockhart. Efficiency Canada pointed out the lack of airtightness testing as a notable gap when the code was under review, noting air leakage is the “largest source of heat loss in buildings.”
“I think it is also notable to point out that even at net-zero energy ready standards, the [new building codes] still fall short of the International Energy Agency's Net Zero scenario,” he said.
“And under that scenario, they urge all governments to act before 2025 to ensure zero-carbon ready, compliant building codes. So while these codes are an important first step … they also highlight that we need to double down on our efforts to develop and adopt and implement the net-zero emissions code.”
Along with the new building codes, national fire and plumbing codes were also released, which Kevin Griffiths, chair of the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes, said will make all buildings safer and more accessible.
“These new codes are more reflective of the current world we live in,” said Griffiths.
“Thanks to these updates, it will be easier for Canadians with accessibility considerations to navigate different spaces; large farm buildings are now included in the codes to reflect the evolving agricultural sector; and energy performance levels have been introduced to make buildings more energy efficient.”