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Vancouver council moves to lower carbon pollution in new home construction

New rules, which take effect January 2022, apply to low-rise homes no more than three storeys tall
Vancouver city council has moved to lower carbon pollution in construction of low-rise homes. New rules take effect in January 2022. File photo Dan Toulgoet
Vancouver city council has made a transformative move in its goal to lower carbon pollution in the city by setting new rules for construction of low-rise homes that are no more than three storeys tall.

The rules, which don’t take effect until January 2022, are aimed at simultaneously making new housing more energy efficient as the city continues its ambitious push to drop carbon emissions by 1.2 million tonnes by 2030.

Coun. Adriane Carr, who joined the majority of council in voting April 29 for changes to the city’s building bylaw, noted Vancouver was faced with a climate emergency before the coronavirus outbreak reached B.C. this year.

“We can’t forget about that,” Carr told Glacier Media by telephone Tuesday.

“We have to take measures to the fullest extent that we can to make sure we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and with new builds, this is really the smartest way to start.”

The two-year delay in implementation is connected to the pandemic, with the city allowing additional time for home builders to prepare and train for the requirements.

The updated bylaw will apply to the construction of new single-family homes, duplexes, laneway homes, townhouses and low-rise multi-family residential buildings.

City staff will work with the Vancouver Heritage Foundation to ensure there is some flexibility for modest renovations and additions for heritage and character homes.

The changes are geared at projects three storeys and lower, which is a category that accounts for nearly 70 per cent of new home construction in Vancouver.

Townhouses lead new builds

The types of homes being built has largely been townhouses, with 601 building permits issued in the last year. That housing form was followed by single-family homes (369), laneway houses (364) and duplexes (86).

New construction in 2022 will require a builder to incorporate zero emissions space and hot water heating systems, along with the addition of energy efficient roofs and windows to prevent heat loss.

Heat pumps are expected to be popular.

A city staff report said the requirements will result in 63 per cent less carbon pollution than a typical home built in 2019, and 86 per cent less than a similar home built to Vancouver’s building standards in 2007.

adrianecarrVancouver Coun. Adriane Carr. Photo Dan Toulgoet

“It’s much harder to do this for retrofits [of older homes], but we have the power in the Vancouver Charter and in our building bylaw to require new zero emission buildings, and that’s where we’re headed and I’m happy about it,” Carr said.

The biggest emissions source in Vancouver is the burning of natural gas for heat and hot water, making up 56 per cent of overall emissions. Burning gas and diesel in vehicles account for 38 per cent of emissions, with waste at four per cent and electricity at two per cent.

The new requirements will not ban new natural gas connections in homes, with gas uses such as cooking and fireplaces allowed.

The city says it will continue discussions with Fortis B.C. about the use of renewable natural gas, but emphasized the new requirements will still achieve substantial decreases in carbon pollution.

The report pointed out more than 80 per cent of low-rise residential housing built in Vancouver does not result from a rezoning application reviewed by council.

So the city believes the best policy tool to lower carbon pollution across Vancouver is via the building bylaw, which sets a minimum standard for all projects.

‘It comes at a price’

Ron Rapp, chief executive officer Homebuilders Association Vancouver, said his organization was consulted about the changes and is “generally supportive” of council’s move.

Rapp said he agrees the industry has to build less carbon polluting homes but is concerned about the increase in costs to builders, which typically get passed on to homeowners.

By extension, a renter’s cost would also increase, if a home is built to rent. In Vancouver, more than 50 per cent of residents are renters.

“If you’re going to continue to raise the bar in terms of quality and performance, it comes at a price — there’s no two ways about that,” he said.

Those costs, however, could be reduced if all municipalities adopted the same requirements to lower carbon pollution and make housing more energy efficient, he said.

Some already have, with at least seven municipalities in the region voluntarily adopting the B.C. Energy Step Code, a provincial energy performance guideline that sets heat loss limits for new construction.

The B.C. government has set a goal that all new buildings must reach a net-zero energy ready level of efficiency by 2032. The code provides a pathway to reach that goal.

Vancouver’s new direction puts the city closer into alignment with the code, which sets out five “steps” for builders to achieve more energy efficient and environmentally sound homes.

“If everybody’s doing it, then you’re going to get higher capacity in terms of economies of scale and the ability for industry to deliver some more streamlined price,” Rapp said.

The city report said construction costs of a townhouse, for example, would be estimated to increase by 0.1 per cent of the sale price, which is $1.40 per square foot.

Homeowners, however, are expected to see savings.

A 1,345 sq. foot townhouse built to the new requirements will translate to $35 to $50 per month in savings when compared to the same size townhouse built in 2019.

jakefryJake Fry of Smallworks/Laneway Housing Inc. Photo Mike Howell

‘Embedded carbon’

Jake Fry, founder and principal of Smallworks Studios/Laneway Housing Inc., said he fully endorses and supports council’s move to reduce carbon pollution.

But Fry, who is also a director of non-profit Small Housing B.C., which advocates for smaller housing forms in neighbourhoods, said he is concerned about the “increasing march of adding things to homes.”

A study he participated in a few years ago with the City of Vancouver and a company of energy advisors found there were other ways of reducing carbon.

“Probably one of the biggest takeaways we had is that we could do a more modest foundation system that met code and had a tremendous impact on reducing our carbon footprint,” said Fry, noting it didn’t involve digging big holes and reduced the amount of concrete needed to build a foundation.

The study examined three laneway homes under construction and the “embedded carbon” associated to each project.

Embedded carbon is the term used to describe the amount of carbon released when building materials are manufactured, then brought from factory to job site.

“We were using less material and using it in a manner which actually focused on reducing the embedded carbon, both around production and operation of the house, “Fry said.

“We were lightning up the building envelope, lightning up how we were putting our foundations together. But meanwhile, the initiatives that were being brought in were around making more robust building envelopes.”

Added Fry: “A lot of the things the city has been doing are really laudable and they are in a leadership capacity, but it’s at time challenging to have a discussion that might be a bit more sophisticated when looking at issues of embedded carbon over building envelope performance.”

Council’s move is tied to its “six big moves” strategy rolled out in April 2019 to reduce carbon emissions across the city.

The move with the biggest impact is ensuring space and water heating systems installed in new buildings and those replaced in existing buildings are zero emission.

Such a move would reduce Vancouver’s carbon pollution by 552,000 tonnes per year by 2030, which equates to 46 per cent of the city’s goal to reach 1.2 million tonnes.

Note: This story has been updated since first posted.

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