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New energy code raising eyebrows in Alberta

Russell Hixson
New energy code raising eyebrows in Alberta

The National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings (NECB) 2011 has caused a stir throughout the construction industry in Alberta. As of this month it is required on all new construction.

NECB was developed by the National Research Council and Natural Resources Canada as part of the commitment to improving the energy efficiency of Canadian buildings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The NECB covers a wide range of building components and systems, including building envelope, electrical and mechanical systems.

At Buildex Calgary this month, several sessions were dedicated to explaining the new requirements and their impact for the construction industry.

At a panel discussion, Andree Iffrig, the leader for sustainability with DIRTT Environmental Solutions, explained that while many in the industry feel unprepared for the new code, it will introduce an energy model and new documentation to demonstrate reduced energy use. This will make it easier to increase building performance and assist in fighting climate change.

"There is a downside however," she said, noting that some loopholes could allow companies to game the system, trading performance in one area for another. And the modelling will only be required for HVAC systems.

"Everyone is in information overload," said Matt Grace, president of Mission Green Buildings, an engineering consultant company.

But he explained that the code is much less frightening than it seems. He said LEED is like a carrot on a stick to motivate those at the top of the market to pursue excellence while NECB 2011 is a stick at the bottom of the market to prod the lowest performers into meeting a bottom line of performance.

"In an ideal world it shouldn’t bother those at the top of the market," he said.

Grace also acknowledged that the new code is not a cutting edge shift towards climate goals.

"If you push too hard the energy in the industry will invest in getting around the code and lobbying against it," he said.

Grace explained there has been much hyperbole around the new code. It won’t require super insulated buildings or threaten LEED.

"That is the kind tension and misinformation that has gone around," he said.

"It is not an aspirational goal. This does not make you good. This makes you legally compliant.

Jacob Komar, a principal at Revolve Engineering Inc., agreed  with that description of the new code, but was heavily critical of NECB 2011. He said it doesn’t even come close to addressing climate change.

"We are heading for climate catastrophe if we don’t do anything," he said, noting that envelope requirements were the only strict part of the code.

He said most will follow the performance path as it has many of what he calls "freebies." This is because the reference building the code measures a project against performs worse than some of the standard building construction already in use. However, he was optimistic that the energy modelling will have a positive impact.

"All builders will drive to the minimum," he said. "I think codes should lead, not set minimums."

Komar equated the situation to the 1970s when the U.S. government mandated catalytic converters in new cars to reduce harmful vehicle emissions.

"The industry was screaming but they stuck tight and it ended up costing basically nothing," he said. "If you only ask for baby steps, they will deliver baby steps. If you ask for a big target they will deliver."

Payam Esmaili, a project associate, and Julien Poirier, a project manager, both with WSP Canada Inc., held a session explaining the specifics of designing for the new code.

The equipment requirements are based on North American standards and North American construction techniques, so one doesn’t need to import materials or techniques.

Builders can take the prescriptive or performance path and there are several ways to meet requirements, they explained. The prescriptive path entails the completion of proper forms and is then confirmed through inspection. This means less costly consulting fees and offers straightforward design criteria. But it may also limit design options.

For the performance path, the builder must demonstrate that a proposed design will not consume more energy than the NECB baseline. It requires hourly simulation from an energy modelling tool. One can trade-off between different parts of the code as there are no mandatory minimum requirements. This leaves open many more design options, they stated.

"A lot of the buildings will want to pursue this path because if you want to design a pretty building, this path is likely the best way to do it," Esmaili said

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