B.C.’s Energy Step Code: Driving Market Transformation

In 2017, British Columbia introduced the B.C. Energy Step Code—what might be North America’s most innovative beyond-code standard for energy efficiency. The B.C. Energy Step Code is an opt-in regulation that enables local governments to pursue improved levels of performance for new homes and buildings. The code allows cities and towns in B.C. to require or incentivize one of five levels of improved building performance, from current code performance all the way to net zero energy ready.

The Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change, Canada’s buildings strategy, and the B.C. Climate Leadership Plan have set targets for all new buildings to meet net zero energy ready standards by 2030 or 2032. B.C.’s Energy Step Code is the first provincial road map to achieving this goal, providing much-needed clarity to the industry and to authorities having jurisdiction. The code is performance based, with compliance assessed through energy-modeling software and on-site testing, simplifying the permitting process while also ensuring design flexibility.


Spire Landing, Passive House rental apartment building, under construction at Fraser Street and East 57th Avenue in Vancouver. July 6, 2018. Photo: Stephen Hui, Pembina Institute.


Local Governments Step Up

As of July 2018, 28 municipalities in B.C. have signaled their intent to use the Energy Step Code—together accounting for over half of the province’s population. (The city of Vancouver has already taken measures to incentivize steps to net zero energy ready buildings—see “Vancouver Strides Toward Zero Emissions.” The city has committed to creating equivalencies between its building bylaws and the Energy Step Code.) As each municipality considers its options for incentivizing or requiring higher building performance, the question arises, What step should be first?

An extensive costing study, completed in 2017, offers some insight. It costed thousands of simulations for ten archetypes, representing a range of possible design choices that could comply with each performance step in the six climate zones of B.C. A first of its kind in Canada, this study revealed that significant reductions in energy use, carbon pollution, and utility costs already can be achieved at very moderate additional construction costs for the first three steps. For example, the lowest capital cost designs meeting step 3 for homes and apartment buildings in most parts of the province result in at least 20% energy savings and 50% emissions reductions (in some cases up to 90%), for less than 2% incremental construction costs. The designs needed to meet these performance criteria are familiar to the industry, which already regularly builds to this level under a series of voluntary programs.

Given the existence of low-cost solutions and the market’s readiness, many local governments are opting to adopt step 3, either as a requirement or as a minimum threshold for access to added density or other incentives. Metro Vancouver’s three North Shore municipalities, for example, have been requiring step 3 for new low- and midrise residential buildings since last July. Burnaby, New Westminster, and Surrey are also considering requiring or incentivizing step 3 for residential buildings.

The potential carbon pollution reductions from adopting step 3 are significant— and make a strong case for dispensing with the first two steps in many areas. For single-family homes, for example, the marginal cost for builders and consumers of moving from step 2 to step 3 is about a 1% increase in capital costs. Going up the step decreases emissions by another 20% to 25% below base code while maintaining energy costs at the same level. If all of the major municipalities in Metro Vancouver adopted step 3 for residential buildings, over one million tonnes of carbon pollution would be avoided cumulatively between 2018 and 2030.

Stepping Out Beyond B.C.

Such innovation need not be limited to B.C. Developing a multitiered framework in other Canadian provinces would allow municipalities to start building the industry capacity and experience required to smoothly transition to net zero energy ready construction.

All around the country, energy-efficient buildings are being built and recognized for the multiple benefits they provide, including better air quality, reduced mold and moisture, and lower energy costs. A national energy step code could help accelerate this market transformation. Why wait?

—Tom-Pierre Frappé-Sénéclauze

Tom-Pierre Frappé-Sénéclauze is the director of the Buildings and Urban Solutions Program at the Pembina Institute and a cofounder of Three for All B.C., a coalition working to inspire and inform local government action on energy efficiency through judicious use of the B.C. Energy Step Code.


Vancouver Strides Toward Zero Emissions

In 2018 the city of Vancouver adopted a Zero Emissions Building Catalyst Tools policy for mixed-use and multiunit residential buildings. This policy is focused on advancing multifamily buildings designed to the Passive House or International Living Future Institute Zero Energy standard. To offset the costs of high performance construction, this policy allows for up to a 5% floor area increase for buildings developed under a district schedule. The policy also gives the Director of Planning broad discretion to relax city regulations and policies, such as frontage requirements and floor plate limits, in order to facilitate the construction of near zero emissions buildings.

This policy is part of a larger Zero Emissions Buildings Plan established by Vancouver in 2016 to achieve zero emissions in all new construction by 2030. The city has planned a phased approach with interim targets of 70% emissions reduction in newly permitted buildings by 2020 and 90% by 2025. This plan would make Passive House thermal performance a requirement for rezoning applications by 2020, and for all low-rise residential development permits in Vancouver by 2025.

This 2016 plan also states that Passive House certification will be required for all new city-owned buildings, unless it is deemed unviable. In response, a new fire hall is being designed to achieve Passive House certification. The Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency has also incorporated a requirement to assess projects against the Passive House standards as part of its request for proposal process.

Other regulatory actions include requirements for rezoned large commercial and multiunit residential projects to meet strict thermal energy demand targets or the Passive House standard. This policy affects 60% of the square footage being developed in Vancouver. Previous actions had allowed, for all building types, the exclusion of the area used for insulation levels that exceed minimum code levels from floor space ratio calculations.

Vancouver also launched in 2018 a program providing homebuilders some incentives to document their near zero emissions projects and to offset some of the additional design costs. The city also offers discounts on Passive House training courses for trades active in its jurisdiction.


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