Tiered Building Codes – What they are, why they matter, and what it means for existing buildings in Canada
In December 2016, all provinces and territories, except Saskatchewan, agreed to the adoption of the Pan Canadian Framework on Clean Growth Climate Change (PCF) which included a commitment to a net-zero energy ready (NZER) model building code by 2030.
In turn, the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes (CCBFC) developed its Long-Term Strategy for Developing and Implementing More Ambitious Energy Codes. The new codes set to be released in late 2021 – following a delay to the original launch date of September 2020 due to the pandemic – introduce a series of increased performance “tiers”.
Traditionally, building codes set minimum acceptable standards for construction. However, technology and construction best practices often advance at a faster rate than the “base” codes. Unlike these minimum requirements, which already follow acceptable industry practices, predetermined tiers “change the regulatory dynamic from codes that follow the industry to codes that set the direction for the industry” . This enables industry stakeholders to familiarize themselves with new standards while providing a flexible framework for provinces and territories to establish the laws in which buildings must be constructed.
As it stands, the proposed tiers for the 2020 National Energy Codes for Buildings (NECB) will be made up of four progressive tiers which will be voluntary until adopted by their Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJs) – the provinces or cities that have jurisdiction over construction.
The proposed tiers take a referenced approach to energy targets and are performance based. What this means is that rather than defining a building by the standards to which they must be constructed and an absolute energy performance target, targets are based on how a building’s performance is measured relative to the energy performance of a reference building. According to Efficiency Canada, a reference building is a hypothetical building that shares all the same features and attributes of the considered building but are built to a reference standard or code (i.e. ASHRAE or NECB 2020).
The proposed model is outlined in the table below:
This is exciting news, but what does it mean for existing buildings?
National building codes have been around since the 1940s. They address several objectives related to fire and structural safety, health, accessibility, and include codes related to water use and energy efficiency.
Building codes are updated as we learn more about building construction and maintenance and new buildings are built to these standards. Consequently, many existing buildings have outdated mechanical systems and have larger ecological footprints than their newer counterparts.
The NECB sections on energy efficiency were primarily developed with new construction in mind. Requiring retroactive updates to existing building stock would need additional support from provinces and territories. The CCBFC recognizes that the improvement of energy performance is still a critical component to achieving meaningful energy reductions. Their policy position indicates that they will continue to work with the federal government to develop technical guidance on energy efficiency improvements, notably during renovations.
With this being said, the Joint CCBFC/PTPACC Task Group on Alterations to Existing Buildings (JTG AEB) recognizes that “the development of National Model Codes for existing buildings could be a key component of improving the performance of existing buildings at the time of alterations, and achieving the provinces' and territories', along with Canada's, long-term policy goals”, indicating that more stringent legislation for existing buildings could be on the way.
It is also important to highlight that the latest iteration of the code will drive energy efficient new construction, which in turn will create market demand for a range of high-performance building products. As health and efficiency continue to be at the forefront of what renders a commercial building desirable for investors and occupants, owners and managers of existing buildings will be driven to improve current standards to maintain a competitive advantage.
Finally, incentive programs play a big role in improving the performance of buildings. Non-regulatory tools are generally developed in conjunction with regulatory ones to ensure successful transition. Education, product development, incentive programs, mandatory labelling, and benchmarking programs are all examples of programming being developed in tandem that will support the transformation of existing buildings.