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Home builders urged to adopt 'constant learning' to stay in step with building code changes

Image of BC Hydro's Gary Hamer
Gary Hamer, a specialist engineer with BC Hydro Power Smart, says the days are gone when a home builder could get away with no new learning beyond basic training. He recommends taking advantage of the new Local Energy Efficiency Partnership (LEEP) sessions to stay current on building code changes and innovation.

'Builders need to keep an eye on change, and be proactive about it'

Not long ago, you could hang out a shingle as a home builder in B.C. after completing your training — and never take another building course. Changes in building science were slow enough that most builders picked up what they needed to know on the job, and largely kept building as they always had.

But that was the past.

"The era of a builder going through an apprenticeship course and never having to take any more courses is rapidly approaching its end," says Gary Hamer, specialist engineer with Power Smart.

Hamer says that as B.C. Building Code requirements for energy efficiency become more exacting, builders will need to better understand building science to avoid making a change in one area that causes an unintended consequence in another.

"Things are getting to a tipping point where we need to consider all the parts of a house as elements of one system," he says. "For instance, maybe you improved the thermal envelope and met the ventilation requirements, but excess air leakage needs to be addressed too. Ensuring that the envelope is tight will help avoid moisture problems occurring inside the wall. If warm indoor air is allowed to escape through leaks in walls, it will cool and could leave enough condensed water behind to cause problems within the wall."

He says continual learning is the key. "Building is a science — not too unlike other professions such as architecture or engineering — where you need to be constantly learning to practice your trade," he says. "Going forward, I think builders are going to be more reliant upon external training opportunities than they have been in the past."

Many options available for ongoing training and learning

Hamer recommends training such as the seminars and webinars offered by the Homeowners Protection Office. HPO webinars recorded in the past can be watched anytime online. And there are also publications, with an option to subscribe to notifications (located at the bottom of the HPO publications page) when new publications are added.

TECA — the Thermal Environmental Comfort Association — also provides courses and manuals. The free building guide — Pathways to High Performance Housing In British Columbia — is also a recommended resource.

Local partnership will deepen knowledge about energy efficient building in B.C.

Another source of knowledge will come from a new Local Energy Efficiency Partnership (LEEP), a joint project of BC Hydro, FortisBC, City of Vancouver, and the Homeowners Protection Office, with Natural Resources Canada contracted to lead the sessions.

LEEP will bring together a group of B.C.-based builders to agree upon how to improve home energy efficiency in a cost effective manner. Participating builders will recommend market-ready technologies that are proven — technically and economically — to improve B.C. building energy performance by 25 per cent over what is required by building codes today.

"We know building codes are going to continue to advance," says Hamer. "The distant goal — that the Canadian Home Builders Association is working on already — is net zero energy use; producing as much energy as the home uses annually.

"Those homes will use 75 per cent less energy than new homes do today."

LEEP will help set the path to zero by identifying some promising technologies that will be field-tested by progressive builders.

"Our hope is that we'll be able to inform the industry as to what makes sense, from a cost-effective, performance-based perspective," says Hamer. "Then building code officials can use [LEEP's findings] in the future to influence their decisions on how far to advance the codes."

Hamer is tasked with finding ways to share the ideas and experiences developed in the LEEP process with the wider builder industry in B.C.

Pace of change in building practices will accelerate

"We're trying to accelerate the market as quickly as we can," says Hamer. "Residential buildings are responsible for about a third of the provincial electrical energy use, or about 3.5 times what Site C could produce. And considering that a new home built today should last for 50 or 100 years, the implications of delaying energy efficiency improvements is significant; the motivation to improve home performance, strong.

"Builders should know that building codes are advancing, and they're going to keep going. Learning more about building science is critical to the success of making efficient homes that work — as a system.

"Nobody likes to be told that, 'As of next month, you've got to do things differently.' Instead, they need to keep their eye on the change that lies ahead, and be proactive about it."