A guide to making homes in B.C. more sustainable and energy-efficient

By Mark Sakai

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      (This article is sponsored by the .)

      As COVID-19 continues its grip on our communities more than a year after the pandemic began, housing has never been more important. Our homes have become our refuge, schools for our children, our workplaces, and entertainment centres.

      With vaccinations reaching more and more arms and the hopes of a post-pandemic world in the near future, there is no better time than now to talk about how we can sustainably and affordably future-proof our homes.

      The case for energy-efficient homes

      Putting the pandemic aside—if that is at all possible—the need for energy-efficient homes comes from the fact that climate change is a global crisis in its own right, which demands solutions that are long overdue and require immediate action.

      Many innovations are already making our homes more energy efficient and reducing their greenhouse-gas emissions. In B.C., zero-emission homes are being built today, and there are plans to build many more. There are also solutions to retrofit existing homes to reduce emissions, and these innovations don’t need to be complex, or unduly impact the cost of housing.

      But continued innovation and collaboration among government, the real estate sector, and homeowners, buyers and tenants is necessary for the change to be substantive. There are three key elements to consider.

      The easy part: new housing

      In 2017, the B.C. government enabled the Energy Step Code (ESC), a new way to implement the B.C. Building Code as it relates to the energy efficiency of buildings. Here’s how it works:

      • Step 0 is the current Building Code standard.
      • Step 1 retains that standard but requires that an energy model evaluate the efficiency of a building and measure the air tightness.
      • Steps 2 to 5 gradually ramp up the requirements for building envelope efficiency and air tightness, with the top level representing the equivalent of Passive House or Net Zero Energy Ready Homes.

      The government initially allowed municipalities to voluntary adopt the level of the ESC that they deemed most appropriate to their community’s level of high-performance building knowledge, and capacity, but that will change in 2022, when Step 3 will become the base requirement for the Building Code. The plan is to then require Step 4 in 2027, and Step 5 in 2032, the target date for the government’s plan to have all new construction meet the highest level of energy efficiency.

      Why is this considered “the easy part”? Because with each new building, you start from a clean site. The designer and builder are in control of the materials, construction methods, and equipment. Energy modelling and air tightness are simpler, and deficiencies can be corrected with relative ease.

      At the , we’re helping realtors learn more about the ESC and home-energy efficiency with a series of new courses we’ve developed. They include Energy Efficient and Sustainable Homes created in partnership with the Real Estate Foundation of British Columbia (REFBC) and B.C. Hydro, and Healthy Indoor Environments, created with the REFBC and B.C. Lung Association. With this knowledge, realtors can be a source of information for people as they navigate the housing choices available to them—and literacy in home energy efficiency is a big part of that.

      The tricky part: existing housing stock

      Bridging the gap between energy efficiency and existing housing stock is not as simple, because every existing building has a back story. When was it built? What were the building code requirements at the time? How has it been maintained over the years? What renovations have been done? Because of the endless number of “back stories” in older buildings there is no one-size-fits-all approach to energy retrofits.

      In some cases, upgrading windows and improving weatherstripping might significantly reduce air leakage and heat loss. Or upgrading attic insulation. Or upgrading space heating and hot water systems. Or maybe all of the above. And not everyone has an unlimited budget to accomplish these upgrades. With the high cost of housing, it can be very challenging for the buyer of an existing home to immediately undertake a series of energy upgrades. Even existing home owners may not know where or how to start.

      But, there’s good news on that front. There is an effort underway to develop an energy efficiency assessment tool that can be applied to existing housing. The plan is to make this tool cost-effective and easy to use, and it will provide an energy rating for existing houses, much like the ESC provides ratings for new houses. To maximize the tool’s effectiveness, BCREA would like it to be integrated with existing programs like CleanBC incentives, which offer rebates for improving a home’s energy efficiency through certain upgrades. BCREA’s courses for realtors will equip them to provide important information to sellers and buyers so they can make informed decisions, both when they list their homes for sale, and when they purchase and plan future renovations.

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      The big picture

      A third element of sustainability in housing involves adopting a community-wide lens, rather than focusing only on the building. When you look at any city in the province, the vast majority of the land zoned for residential purposes is intended for single-family homes. There are notable exceptions—the City of Vancouver now allows three or four dwelling units on almost all of its low-density residentially zoned lots (“the RS zone”)—but most municipalities effectively prohibit a diversity of housing types in their single-family areas.

      However, we can dramatically improve the sustainability of housing by adopting “gentle densification” of these single-family zones. By blanket-rezoning these areas to allow duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes, with secondary suites, and/or laneway/coach homes, we can more efficiently use this valuable land resource. The provincial government projects a population increase of almost 1.4 million people between 2020 and 2041. Where will they all live? Many don’t want to live in high-rise towers, and with climate change and sustainability in mind, we can’t keep paving over farmland and forests to build new subdivisions.

      By re-imagining low density neighbourhoods, we can provide more and better housing choices for young families, downsizing empty nesters, multigenerational families, and young renters. Revitalizing these neighbourhoods will increase school enrollment and could reverse the trend of school closures. Bringing more households into a neighbourhood generates more customers for local retailers and services, and provides more support to existing infrastructure like transit, community centres, and libraries.

      Creating more housing choices closer to existing services and employment centres means people can make do with fewer and shorter commutes, further reducing their carbon footprint. Multi-unit housing like fourplexes means fewer exterior walls for heat loss, resulting in higher energy efficiency. Replacing an old single-family home with a new fourplex means the new housing will be built to the current ESC standard, ensuring dramatic improvement in energy performance.

      Bringing a sustainable future to reality requires collaboration among government, the private sector, professionals and property owners. Realtors can be a strong communications link to the public to increase the level of energy literacy among those who are seeking information to make their best decision about their next housing choice, and BCREA is committed to being part of the solution to making housing sustainable for the good of our communities and the climate.