North Vancouver Density Bonus Bylaw

North Vancouver - Making energy efficient building the new norm

Nina Winham

For many dense urban communities, grappling with energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets is a challenge. Unlike rural and suburban communities – where transportation emissions are relatively higher – a significant portion of an urban carbon footprint comes from buildings. Yet building standards are regulated at the provincial level, leaving local governments with limited tools for influencing energy efficiency in buildings.

So what's a forward-thinking municipality to do?

One practice is to offer developers additional density in return for improving the energy efficiency of their buildings. However, if total density across the community has already been established (or if increased density is a sensitive issue), this again becomes challenging.

That's why an innovative bylaw developed by the City of North Vancouver could offer local governments across the province a new tool for carbon reduction.

Density bonussing - without adding density

North Vancouver's bylaw has established a two-tiered threshold for developable floor space ratio (FSR), based on the energy efficiency standards a developer achieves. Buildings that aim for the minimum B.C. Building Code energy standard are allowed a reduced floor space ratio. Developers who wish to utilize the full FSR permitted under North Vancouver's Official Community Plan (OCP), however, must build to higher energy efficiency standards – and prove that their building achieves the performance level required.

"Typically, other municipalities where you've heard of this being done are adding density on top of what the developer is already allowed," says Emilie K. Adin, city planner for the City of North Vancouver. "Our approach is just creating a new normal. We put this calculation right inside the zoning bylaw, so the owners don't have to apply for a rezoning. We don't want energy efficiency to be part of what we negotiate on a case by case basis anymore; we want everyone to step up to the plate and contribute to energy conservation."

The bylaw makes its point clear with numbers: the difference between the low-performance density threshold and the "bonussed" density allowed for higher energy efficiency is significant.

  • Single family and duplex construction: homes that achieve an EG (EnerGuide) 80 rating (rather than EG 77 equivalent as required by the B.C. Building Code) are allowed to add space in the cellar.
  • Mid-rise residential construction: buildings that achieve EG 80 can increase their density from 1.0 FSR to the full 1.6 allowed in the OCP.
  • High rise/mixed use construction: developments that comply with the minimum B.C. Building Code are limited to 1.0 FSR, whereas those that achieve ASHRAE 90.1 2007 can utilize the full 2.6 FSR allowed in the OCP.

Politically, not increasing density above the OCP was important in gaining support for the new policy. "We're not selling the farm, says City of North Vancouver Mayor Darrell Mussatto. "In some cases, the additional FSR might not even be noticeable to the person on the street. And yet it makes it more economically feasible for the builder and it gives us a better quality building."

Affordable green

The city's new bylaw went into effect on January 1, 2011. Since then, every developer has chosen to build to the higher energy requirement in order to achieve the full density permitted by the OCP. "It's affordable for the developer," says Adin. "We believe as long as developers are informed early and often of these sorts of requirements, they can accommodate them.

"Every cost counts, so I don't want to diminish that, but if it's a choice between granite countertop in the kitchen or higher energy performance, we want them to choose the higher energy performance. The incremental cost can be a relatively small percentage of the total cost of construction." As of 2013, the bylaw is expected to save over 440 tonnes of GHG emissions per year and up to 1.3 GWh (gigawatt hours) of electricity per year, enough to fully power 118 B.C. homes every year.

Adin encourages other planners to consider similar measures. "A lot of other municipalities seem interested, but there are some misconceptions about what we've done," she says. "Many think our bylaw allows for densities above what is permitted by the OCP, and that daunts them because that can raise concerns from the public. I think sometimes staff have to take this challenge on, and find ways to present these ideas that make it acceptable and easy to do. This bylaw has received unanimous support across city council."

Mayor Mussatto credits both staff and city residents for their leadership on sustainability. "Our community is asking, and our staff are delivering. Both of them have bought in, and that's critical," he says.

"The easy political hit is to do something that gets an immediate benefit now," he continues. "Whereas this is for future generations, for the people who come after us. So the members of council who support this are looking to the long term benefit, beyond a political timeframe."

BC Hydro's role

BC Hydro is active in supporting local governments across the province to reduce their carbon footprint, save energy, and achieve their greenhouse gas reduction goals. The utility supported the City of North Vancouver's density bonussing initiative by modeling the impact of the policy on energy savings and through technical expertise included in the Community Energy Manager program, part of the Power Smart Sustainable Communities program.

Density bonussing offers one option for incenting more energy efficient buildings. Others include: reductions on parking requirements, processing times, development application fees, and development cost charges; allowance for thicker walls in floor space calculations; and exemptions for certain energy efficiency technologies from height and lot coverage calculations.

For more information, visit BC Hydro's programs for local governments.