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Canada - The Goal Posts are Moving: Part 3 of 3

Guest blog by Marshall Leslie

With the arrival of 2012, all Canadians have been invited to participate in a review of changes to the National Building Code (NBC) that would make energy efficiency an objective for new homes and small buildings. In my earlier blogs, I wrote about what makes Canada different, and how the U.S. and Canada chose different paths in high performance building labelling. I’m going to start with this consultation, as I try to bring readers up to date, and point to where I think Canada may be headed in the future.

The Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes (CCBFC) is the government agency that issued the invitation. (It’s open until March 2nd). The proposed changes address the building envelope, HVAC, service water heating, performance compliance options for the builder, as well as the new energy objective. If they’re approved, they’ll appear in the NBC late this year.

Does that seem fast?  Does it seem like a nicely packaged deliverable? Well, it isn’t, and it was part of a much larger picture. You see in 2007, the council of Canada’s Premiers (our version of the National Governors Association) agreed that energy efficiency was a policy objective that every province shared. This set a lot of wheels in motion – not just in the building code – but also in voluntary labelling and energy rating. The major impetus was the fact that five of the ten provinces have their own building codes, and together they represent over 80% of Canada’s population. (The NBC is a model document adopted in regulation by five small provinces).  As individual provinces began to implement higher energy efficiency, they leapfrogged one another, chose different (but always higher) energy rating levels, and added new language to the mix – add-ons like water conservation, for example.

I’m not going to suggest that anyone actually ever said: “My code is better than your code”, but the differences that were there became evident. And among the first to notice were the providers of voluntary building labels and energy ratings, who in Canada have service areas that almost always correspond to provincial boundaries. The label providers realized that they were being presented with an opportunity to significantly increase their energy efficiency levels, and they acted to maintain their positions of leadership. And as the announcements rolled out – in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Manitoba – the national government also began to entertain changing the NBC. 

Amidst all of these changes, there were questions about coordination, the levels that were selected, the skills and technology required to meet the new levels, and the benefits. Each jurisdiction dealt with the merits of the concerns – delaying in some cases and reducing the scope in others, but always moving forward. The voluntary label and rating providers however did not have access to the tools of administrative law, and so they followed a consultative process directed by Canada’s Department of Natural Resources’ Office of Energy Efficiency dubbed “Next Generation”.

Three “Next Generation” task groups were created. North America’s oldest new home label program is R-2000, a public-private partnership between the Government of Canada and the Canadian Home Builders’ Association. The R-2000 group’s membership was selected using the same balanced matrix approach that the development of Canadian standards must follow (and which is more consensus-based than the U.S.). It’s charge was to develop and approve the content. The Canadian ENERGY STAR for New Homes label task group was selected using the same method, and told to target energy-saving features 20% to 30% more efficient than standard houses in the most stringent jurisdiction in Canada. The EnerGuide Rating System group (Canada’s HERS) was directed to devise an update system for new and existing homes - including net zero homes - on the same scale, for all uses, that would complement all building codes.  

Like the NBC, the EnerGuide Rating System (ERS) recommendations are still out for public comment – R-2000 and ENERGY STAR for New Homes both closed a few weeks ago. The NBC and most provincial building codes have already set ERS 80 as the new minimum allowable energy efficiency rating for new homes. (This is the equivalent of the 2012 U.S. ENERGY STAR Version 3.0). The new Canadian version of ENERGY STAR will be ERS 83, a 25% improvement over minimum codes in most locations. The R-2000 energy efficiency target is ERS 86, meaning 50% better than the new minimum code in most Canadian jurisdictions. The other major new home label schemes in Canada - Built Green, LEED for New Homes, and Novoclimat – will follow suit.

There have been other interesting outcomes to these advances in energy efficiency. One is LEEP – the acronym for Local Energy Efficiency Partnership. Sponsored by Canada’s Department of Natural Resources, LEEP introduces new energy efficient building practices, products and systems to builders who review and choose for themselves what they want to use in field trials. LEEP helps to identify the most acceptable—and successful—new practices. Several have already made their way into ENERGY STAR for New Homes, and the building code. 

And last October – partly to welcome GreenBuild attendees – a group of Canadians conceived the “Cross Border Builders Challenge”, a voluntary effort to encourage Canadian and American homebuilders to outstrip current energy efficiency practices. The Canadians entered in the Challenge have committed to build 30% more energy efficient than current homes, and the Americans 50% more energy efficient. 

What conclusions should be drawn from all this? I suggest that Canadian policy makers have taken up the challenge that the building innovators long dangled before them, in the form of voluntary label and demonstration schemes. In order to do so however, policy makers had to depend upon strong consensus standards, proven technology, field reviews, benchmarks, and a lot of building science. The label schemes have responded in turn by moving their targets significantly upward. The result is a completely new dynamic, in a hardened market, that must be closely watched.