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B.C.’s Step Code raising eyebrows among builders

Don Procter

B.C.’s Energy Step Code is turning heads in Canada for its framework of incremental standards that achieve energy-efficient buildings beyond the energy standards in the province’s base building code.

But despite a focus on energy efficiency, the Step Code’s main purpose is to create one set of rules for municipalities, says Zachary May, acting director of policy and codes development with the B.C. Building and Safety Standards Branch.

May says before the Step Code energy standards were inconsistent with many B.C. municipalities requiring builders to meet a patchwork of standards such as EnerGuide, Energy Star, Passive House and LEED.

"Some require certification or testing or different approaches and for builders working in, say, a dozen different communities (municipalities) in the course of a year, they need to train up on all these programs," says May. "That inconsistency costs money and doesn’t add any value."

The Step Code was implemented in the B.C. Building Code in April 2017 for use on a voluntary basis but as of Dec. 15, 2017, it will be mandatory for all municipalities that had required builders to meet other energy program standards and certifications.

"If they want to continue their programs they have to transition whatever they are doing today to a Step Code equivalent," says May.

The new code has five tiers or steps for residential construction, ranging from energy standards similar to the National Building Code to standards that meet a Passive House.

For other types of construction, such as commercial building, there are fewer energy performance levels or steps, he says.

Each tier is structured around energy programs: EnerGuide 80, for example, is Step 2; Energy Star, Step 3; R-2000, Step 4; and Net Zero Energy or Passive House, Step 5.

"Builders trained in Step Code energy levels…won’t have to worry about a different language or meeting the requirements of different programs (from one municipality to another)," he adds.

May says builders needn’t worry that municipalities will enforce the highest energy performance tiers.

"The municipalities that we have talked to are focused on the lower steps that they know the builders can do. They want to see some modest improvements (in energy construction) right now," he explains.

Achieving the highest step is "a technical challenge that not all builders will be able to do today, and so local governments need to be supportive and make sure there are incentives on the table."

Builder incentives might include a quicker permitting process or guaranteed outcomes for developers seeking rezoning for higher density projects, May says.

Casey Edge, executive director of the Victoria Residential Builders Association (VRBA) calls the Step Code "the biggest hit to rising (home) prices in B.C."

He says some of his members building homes to EnerGuide 80 standards could face an additional $80,000 to meet the net zero Passive House building standard in the Step Code.

The Building and Safety Standards Branch "has engaged them (the VRBA) in the process" of developing the new code, but the association has not explained how it arrived at the $80,000.

"I am not aware of any studies done that back up those numbers," says May.

He says a costing study commissioned by the government suggests that building a 2,600 square foot home to meet Passive House standards (Step 5) would cost about $20,000. To meet Step 3, by comparison, would cost $7,500.

"Any notion that we have a plan to make housing unaffordable, I just don’t understand," says May, adding that the Step Code was developed in collaboration with industry — the Canadian Home Builders’ Association and the Urban Development Institute, for example.

"This has been the most consultative process we have ever done for any change in the building code," he says.

Elsewhere in North America, Ontario has taken steps forward, identifying some "beyond code" energy efficiency requirements. But no other jurisdiction that he is aware of has moved to a multi-step code aligned with the National Building Code’s long-term energy goals.

"We are a bit ahead of the pack," May states.

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