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Building codes contain sustainability shortcomings: ULI Toronto panel

New national and provincial building codes are moving in the right direction, but still contain s...

IMAGE: ULI Toronto's OBC panel review

The opening slide to ULI Toronto’s panel on the Ontario Building Code. (Screenshot via ULI Toronto)

New national and provincial building codes are moving in the right direction, but still contain significant differences and shortcomings in implementing and enforcing sustainability measures, panellists said at an Urban Land Institute (ULI) Toronto event.

The March 24 web panel focused on the Ontario Building Code (OBC), digging into current requirements, potential changes in the years ahead and the sometimes stark differences between the Ontario code and national codes.

The provinces have committed to harmonizing with the National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings 2020 (NECB), which was published earlier this month as guidance for larger buildings, and the National Building Code of Canada 2020 (NBC) for smaller installations.

The decision to harmonize the national and provincial codes came out of the Reconciliation Agreement on Construction Codes, part of the Canadian Free Trade Agreement signed in November 2020. In signing that agreement, Ontario committed to adopting requirements in the new national codes within two years of its release.

The national codes are not binding on builders but are meant to be applied as models for the provincial codes in each jurisdiction. Both the feds and provinces had previously committed to net-zero energy ready (NZER) codes by 2030, but now the feds are promising an NZER model by 2025.

“We’re not entirely sure what’s intended there (with the NZER model); I’m not sure they are either,” said Bryan Purcell, the vice-president of policy and programs at the Toronto Atmospheric Fund.

The national/provincial push and pull

Purcell did, however, highlight the positives of the new national codes, including having five energy performance tiers in the NBC and four for the NECB.

The highest tiers are net-zero ready and can be used as incentives for provincial or municipal codes like the B.C. Energy Step Code or the Toronto Green Standard (TGS). The lowest tiers are based on the lowest common denominator in Canada for provinces still playing catch-up.

He also referenced the stronger focus on building envelopes, particularly for small buildings.

However, there are shortcomings, particularly in the lower tiers, which he called “generally unambitious.” The first tier of the NECB, he said, is “much weaker” than the upgraded TGS tier 1, which comes into effect in May.

Additionally, Purcell expressed concern about eliminating mandatory airtightness testing, which was excluded for “concerns about industry readiness.” There is also no timeline for reintroduction.

He also lamented the lack of absolute standards related to performance.

However, unique to Ontario are some requirements regarding more urban elements like public transit.

Codes don’t enforce GHG reductions

Despite the criticisms,  Purcell said, about 60 per cent of the technical requirements in the national codes mirror those in the Ontario Building Code.

Miyoko Oikawa, the manager of research and innovation with Doug Tarry Homes, noted Ontario has only adopted tier 1 of the NECB, which makes airtightness an upgrade measure. Under the NBC, however, the province adopted Tier 3, which Oikawa said would mean 20 per cent lower energy usage and a 10 per cent reduction in heat loss.

The participants also discussed elements that are missing from the national codes. Since there are no GHG reduction requirements, nothing on operational or embodied carbon requirements has been implemented.

It’s also fuel-neutral, meaning there are no guidelines on whether developers use natural gas, electricity or other options for heating. Further, there’s no mention of EV or solar power-ready requirements.

The Ontario Building Code is expected to consider carbon reduction requirements in the next phase of provincial consultation.

“We have an aspirational commitment of 2030, but it’s not in the code,” Purcell said. “We have no indication of when these lower tiers will drop off.”

Harmonizing national, provincial codes

One of the key attractors for the provinces and territories to sign the Reconciliation Agreement was to reduce barriers to the movement of goods and services.

“The idea is that manufacturers, suppliers and skilled labour have consistent and convergent construction requirements across Canada,” said Paul De Berardis, the director of building science and innovation at RESCON.

This could impact Ontario, where code changes have been driven by provincial stakeholders.

However, De Berardis says Ontario is underrepresented when it comes to the national building code conversation, though it makes up 45 per cent of the country’s building market. In addition, consultation periods have been shortened to 45 days.

“The other challenge, too, is that there was no Ontario-specific impact analysis or considerations done,” De Berardis said, “just the fact that Ontario’s market is obviously different from Newfoundland’s.”

That also means there has been no assessment on whether the 2020 codes will improve GHG reductions and energy performances compared to the 2017 codes. This NECB will be in place until 2028, but Purcell sees no improvement in GHG emissions or energy reductions.

Consultations on harmonization will continue until the next OBC update is filed in mid-2023. It would come into effect on January 1, 2024.

“This code change is not just moving the scale in terms of energy performance,” Oikawa said. “This is like learning French when you speak English and asking you to learn it within a six- to the 12-month window and then have a debate in that new language.”

The event was moderated by Larry Brydon, vice-president of business development and regulatory affairs at Cricket Energy Holdings Inc.

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