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Climate and Construction: Build more homes faster and build them better

John Bleasby
Climate and Construction: Build more homes faster and build them better

The 1960s ballad suggests, “A house is not a home.”

Unfortunately, the North American post-war measure of personal success is too often considered a fully detached house with a front garden, garage and backyard. If in doubt, watch the HGTV channel sometime.

Canada has a dual crisis. On one hand, the country is struggling to meet its 2030 carbon reduction targets. On the other, Canada desperately needs more housing at affordable prices. Can the two crises be co-joined?

Premier Doug Ford’s Ontario government passed its More Homes Built Faster Act late in 2022, with the objective of building 1.5 million new homes by 2032. It followed up by opening the Greenbelt around the GTA for housing development, a move that was later rescinded.

Rather than seeing More Homes Built Faster, it would be welcome news to hear about “Building More Homes Better.” That is the focus of the Task Force for Housing and Climate.

The task force is a high-powered organization co-chaired by former Conservative cabinet minister Lisa Raitt and former Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, and backed by the charitable foundation Clean Economy Fund.

Taking a national perspective, the task force says 5.8 million homes will be needed by 2030 to meet overall demand at affordable levels. The challenge is to build those homes without creating massive amounts of new carbons.

“The climate impacts of adding 5.8 million homes have been largely unknown,” the task force says.

Yet the impact on the environment could be horrendous if a business as usual (BAU) approach were to be taken.

The task force’s first three research studies into the matter were presented together last week.

Each examined the foundational pillars of carbon-conscious residential construction: land use decisions, building materials and energy efficiency performance. The presentation was particularly effective in showing what is possible with a data-based approach to the planning and construction of these millions of new homes versus the default BAU approach.

The bottom line of the task force’s first three studies is this: “Weak policy approaches adding 5.8 million homes could lock in as much as 142.7 Mt in new annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2030. On the other hand, with aggressive policy approaches, adding 5.8 million homes could generate as little as 43 Mt of annual greenhouse gas emissions in 2030.”

That is a dramatic difference.

Progress starts before shovels ever hit the ground when land use decisions are made. Too often, the default approach is sprawling new residential developments. These require massive new supporting infrastructure of all sorts, like roads, sewers, water supplies, schools, shops, recreational facilities and so on.

On the other hand, a move towards increased density through infill housing and more concentrated developments in existing municipalities could reduce GHG emissions by about 15 per cent, not to mention promote a vibrant urban culture.

Jesse Helmer, senior research associate with the PLACE Centre at Smart Prosperity Institute, spoke to the wide differences in land use policies in urban centres across Canada.

For example, Toronto, with little new land available for development, offers new infill housing almost exclusively. Meanwhile, new housing in Brandon, Man. and Brampton, Ont. tend to sprawl into greenfields, resulting in far fewer new homes per hectare than other municipalities. It’s a policy decision made easier when rural areas lie right outside your door.

Reductions in GHG emissions through better land use decisions have an effect on the second pillar; emissions associated with construction itself. A best-case scenario featuring multi-unit, high infill and high circularity housing could result in a 92 per cent reduction of GHGs versus an approach focussed on single family homes, and an 85 per cent reduction versus a mixed housing BAU approach.   

The third pillar, utilizing strong energy efficiency performance policies for structures themselves could reduce GHGs by over 65 per cent. Improvement in that area may, in fact, result from ongoing building code development that will see provinces adopt higher levels of efficiency by 2030 under a national step code scenario.

John Bleasby is a Coldwater, Ont.-based freelance writer. Send comments and Climate and Construction column ideas to



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