B.C.'s next Building Code aims at EG80 – and beyond

Nina Winham

Change is coming to the B.C. Building Code. If you're a builder, that means it's time to get smart about energy. While the first energy and water conservation requirements were added to the Code for the first time in 2008, work is now underway to raise the energy-efficiency bar higher, and higher again after that.

Key points:

  • The next Code will likely focus on a "net heat loss" calculation rather than a specific EnerGuide labeling requirement;
  • The goal is to improve the quality of envelopes in all new home construction;
  • Eventually, energy intensity (energy consumed per square foot) is likely to be the key metric, which will help standardize the performance of different sizes and types of houses.

"We've been aiming to achieve an equivalency to EnerGuide80 in 2010, and I think we're getting reasonably close," says John Nicol, Senior Policy Analyst with the Building and Safety Standard branch of B.C.'s Ministry of Housing. (The EnerGuide rating system developed by Natural Resources Canada helps builders evaluate their house plans for energy efficiency.) But Nicol notes this is "not the end of the road."

"We're treating the development of these code changes as steps along a path," he says. "Ultimately the path will lead to net zero at some point. You take a different strategy if you know you're going to go a lot further. You don't look for the easiest ways to get to the finish line; you take the bigger picture, the longer view into account."

Toby Lau, BC Hydro's Power Smart Policies, Codes and Standards Manager, agrees. "We support the Ministries of Housing and Energy in developing energy efficiency codes and standards for provincial and federal regulation," he says. "We use a market transformation approach. Power Smart helps introduce new technologies and energy efficient building design practices by providing incentives, training and education until these approaches reach a market share level that's acceptable for regulation consideration. Meanwhile, we work with the government on minimum energy efficiency regulations, as to backstop the market from sliding back to old inefficient ways."

Focus on envelopes

What that means for builders is a firm focus on envelope performance.

"We have way more air leakage in our housing than anywhere else in the country, so tightening up the envelope is the first step on the road to further improvements," says Nicol. "Since the envelope ultimately prevents heat loss, for this Code change we're going to use a net heat loss metric." Nicol says there will be a point in each climate zone where an archetypal home would be equivalent to EG80, but the focus and targets of the Code will be expressed in terms of heat loss, not in terms of the current EnerGuide system. (This too will lead to more change – EnerGuide is likely to adopt an "energy intensity" approach – a measure of how much energy per unit of floor space a home consumes.)

Nicol says the goal is to improve the current and future energy performance of homes across the province.

"We wanted to start building a legacy of higher performing envelopes which will stand us in good stead for years to come," he says. "Those homes will be cheaper to retrofit as energy standards go higher. For example, you'll be able to add on some renewables [i.e. solar, wind or geothermal] or upgrade the windows. But upgrading a building envelope later on is very difficult if not impossible to do effectively." Nicol explains that it's technically possible to achieve EG80 with a poor envelope and enough "eco-bling" to counteract the building's fundamental performance flaws – but using a metric such as net heat loss or energy intensity ensures the building doesn't consume more energy than it should.

"You can get 85% of the way to net zero through attention to the building envelope, for 15% of the total cost," says Nicol. "But a crappy envelope is still going to require a lot of energy – even if part of it comes from renewables."

Time to get started

Nicol says the new Code changes will be finalized later this year and will likely come into effect in October, 2011. Some elements, such as envelope air tightness, may be deferred, to allow builders time to fully understand what is required and adapt to the new standards. However, he says, for those who haven't started on energy efficiency, it's time.

"Hopefully the addition of energy and water objectives into the Code in September 2008 got a lot of people's attention," he says. "But looking at the numbers that we're still seeing in terms of audits of air tightness and audits of general energy performance, there hasn't been as much improvement as we might have hoped. So we're basically asking people to up their game."

Says Lau, "Our message to the builder is that there are incentives and recognition that the builder can get from our Power Smart programs, and they're worth taking advantage of. The government is advancing building energy efficiency levels over time, so you have to prepare yourself for it."

"We all tend to think of this as a sort a paradise to live in, with its warmer climate and inexpensive energy," Nicol continues. "But living in it responsibly, and living in it in a way that sustains resources and gives future generations a better chance at a decent life, is something that we need to get people's attention to."