Commentary: Improve N.S. building codes for climate and affordability goals

Originally published by Saltwire on Sept. 6, 2023.

Nova Scotians need to tell the provincial government that they support ambitious building codes.

Consultation on an updated building code ends Sept. 29. While the current proposal will improve standards, it must go further. A stronger code will make housing more affordable and help us meet our climate goals.

In 2021, the federal government published the 2020 National Building Code. These model codes are designed to help all jurisdictions meet their climate commitments for the building sector by 2030.

For the first time, the National Building Code has five tiers regarding energy standards. The highest of the tiers in the national energy code for buildings would result in all new buildings being net-zero energy-ready. This means all new buildings would use such a small amount of energy that they could easily eliminate their energy bills with the addition of solar panels.

It’s up to each province to decide how to implement the national code. The Nova Scotia government’s proposed amendments to the Nova Scotia Building Code Regulations would mean, in 2028, that all new buildings would adhere to Tier 3 of the national energy code, making them about 50 per cent more efficient than the current building code. While this commitment should be applauded, it will not ensure all buildings are net-zero energy-ready by 2030, a goal that Nova Scotia has committed to.

Buildings account for about 42 per cent of Nova Scotia’s greenhouse gases, including oil, gas and electricity use.

The code’s Tier 5 is achievable and would result in a 70 per cent improvement in efficiency. It would enable Nova Scotia to achieve its climate goals more rapidly, enhance climate resilience and ensure an energy secure future for the province.

Nova Scotia has one of the highest rates of energy poverty in the country due to our reliance on fossil fuels for electricity and heating, made much worse by last year’s fossil fuel price increases, before the carbon tax.

The Canada Green Building Council estimates an average upfront cost premium of eight per cent to construct net-zero energy-ready buildings in Canada. However, this results in annual savings of about 24 per cent due to lower energy bills and operating costs.

The highest energy standards are especially important in making housing affordable to low- and modest-income Nova Scotians. Adsum House for Women and Children recently completed a project built to passive house design standards, which is net-zero ready. Energy costs will be 80 per cent lower than in code-built homes. Such savings eliminate energy poverty.

In order for Nova Scotia to achieve its provincewide goal of net zero by 2050, all buildings will need to be net zero. It is estimated that 70 per cent of existing buildings will still be standing in 2050, meaning they will need to be retrofitted. It is more cost-effective to build to net-zero standards now than to retrofit to net-zero later. Every new building and major retrofit that doesn’t meet the highest possible standards is a lost opportunity that will lead to higher energy costs for residents for decades and may require expensive upgrades later.

A more ambitious roadmap toward net-zero energy will spur innovation in the building sector and upskilling of the workforce. We will need to invest in training for both industry and building code compliance officials. Nova Scotia has the highest ratio of energy advisers in the country. With the supportive structure of Efficiency One, the provincial efficiency utility, we are in a better position to successfully transition to sustainable buildings than other provinces.

Nova Scotia’s proposed building code amendments don’t allow municipalities to adopt higher tiers earlier than the province does. Some municipalities are keen to adopt higher standards, but this requires the provincial code to allow municipalities to act as “authority-having jurisdictions.” Empowering municipalities and Indigenous communities to adopt advanced National Building Code tiers would foster local engagement and address unique regional sustainability needs.

Go online to to have your say on building codes before Sept. 29. While Tier 3 is a huge improvement, we need to go further faster. We need to think long term about what it will cost to retrofit our housing stock in comparison to building to net zero the first time around. Nova Scotians deserve efficient, resilient buildings with manageable operating costs, and higher building code ambition is essential to getting us there.

We need to do three things: support the adoption of Tier 3, set a clear date for the adoption of Tier 5 no later than 2030 and empower municipalities to pass even higher minimum-efficiency regulations should they choose. It’s possible and necessary.

Brian Gifford of Halifax is a longtime volunteer working on energy and affordability issues.

Click here to submit your comments on proposed amendments to building code regulations.

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