Beginning Jan. 1, all new construction in Nova Scotia — both commercial and residential — must comply with a more energy-efficient building code. Buildings generate about 42% of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions, including their oil, gas, and electricity use. The new code would substantially reduce the carbon footprint of those buildings.
Both environmentalists with the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) and the Construction Association of Nova Scotia (CANS), the group that represents most builders in the province, support the proposed building code changes. That would mean by 2028, all new construction would be 50% more energy efficient than today.
That said, the new building code presents some practical challenges in terms of both materials and labour supply that may make it difficult to meet the standard.
‘We’ve been strong advocates for these changes’
Duncan Williams is the president and CEO of the Construction Association of Nova Scotia (CANS). He said for years the public has been demanding more energy-efficient housing from builders and the proposed changes to the building code reflect that.
“We have been strong advocates for these changes but there needs to be more conversation about their practical application,” Williams said in a phone interview with the Examiner.
“Besides the need for a huge workforce to do the installs, there are supply chain issues for materials such as solar panels when factories take three to five years to build. It’s about the capacity to manufacture what we need to do the job and the world’s not ready.”
Citizens have only until the end of this week, Sept. 29, to comment on the proposed Nova Scotia Building Code. Click here for the instructions.
The Nova Scotia code is modelled on the National Building Code of Canada 2020 that aims to see all new homes and commercial buildings be net zero energy ready by 2030.
Essentially, that means a building with some type of renewable energy source would be so energy efficient it would produce no carbon emissions. The national code includes five tiers. Nova Scotia is planning to adopt tier 3, a 50% energy reduction in new buildings built before 2028. Some environmentalists say Nova Scotia should move faster further by adopting tier 5, which would improve the energy efficiency of buildings by 70%.
Chris Benjamin is the senior energy coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre (EAC):
To me, it makes no sense to build a building that is not to the highest possible standard because you are only going to have to retrofit it. Those buildings last 50 years. We made a huge commitment as a province to GHG emission reductions and buildings are a huge source of that. Most municipalities will only go as far as the provincial standard, but we should encourage and empower those that want to go further. And there are clearly some First Nations and municipalities that do. For example, Lunenburg, Bridgewater, and Halifax but there are others, too. Halifax has a Charter and all new municipal buildings will go to net-zero now. HRM would love to require that of all new buildings.
The EAC wants Nova Scotia to amend the proposed building code to allow municipalities and First Nations the flexibility to move to tier 5 earlier than 2028.
David Gallagher of Solterre Design said “the office building in Eskasoni is designed to be net- zero energy and will be certified under the Canada Green Building Council’s building standard. Buildings like this are currently being built by environmentally conscious clients who will enjoy more comfortable buildings with minimal utility costs.”
The Canada Green Building Council estimates it costs at least 8% more to construct a net-zero energy-ready building. But the council said that’s short-term pain for long-term gain, with annual operating costs reduced by approximately 24%.
In Halifax, the non-profit Adsum House for Women and Children, which assists survivors of family violence, recently opened housing for women and children that was built to the net-zero standard that will be required in Nova Scotia by 2030.
How flexible should building code be?
The Construction Association of Nova Scotia does not support the province allowing municipalities and First Nations communities the flexibility to choose whether to build to higher energy-efficiency standards. CANS wants one building code for the entire province to avoid potential confusion among builders and enforcement officials.
“Most construction companies in Nova Scotia are small builders with fewer than 20 employees,” Williams said.
“It’s not reasonable or fair to have different standards in different locations. It could become dangerous to the public. If a developer wants to build a project to a higher energy-efficiency level than prescribed by the Nova Scotia Building Code, let the developer apply for a development agreement with the municipality to make an exception.”
On this point, Benjamin does not agree.
“I understand the desire for clarity and uniformity and that it could be confusing to builders to have to meet different standards in different places. On the other hand, because of the climate emergency we are facing, it is urgent to get everyone as far as possible on efficiency standards. Do as much as we can.”
Benjamin worries the province’s two-step process that requires builders to meet a lesser, although significantly improved, energy efficiency standard by 2028 and another promised for 2030 may never reach the finish line.
“OK, 2028 will be tier 3 but what’s the plan to get to tier 5 by 2030? That’s the thing that’s lacking for us,” Benjamin said. “There is no plan that we have seen and that’s the concern.”
The EAC isn’t fully convinced the province intends to move beyond tier 3, despite the fact back in 2016 Nova Scotia signed the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change that committed to net-zero buildings by 2030.
Williams echoes the fact builders want “clarity” from the province around the timing of the transition from the tier 3 to tier 5 standard. He notes it will be up to the province to provide training for building inspectors who will need to understand new models for calculating how building plans comply with 50% and later 70% energy savings.
“Avoiding miscommunication” between developers and the people enforcing the new rules is critical, Williams said. In fact, he suggests it may be worth the province delaying the implementation of the building code a few months, from January to April 2024, if that extra time would ensure planners, builders, and inspectors all land on the same page.
Move enforcement of building codes to Efficiency One?
The Ecology Action Centre thinks it may have a workaround to help with the building inspector issue.
“There’s a shortage on the enforcement front in municipalities outside of Halifax and that’s definitely a concern,” Benjamin said.
“At the moment, the building code’s efficiency stuff lives with the provincial fire marshal’s office. We know from the auditor general’s report they struggle to even meet the fire inspections required. So, maybe the efficiency enforcement should live elsewhere with Efficiency One,” Benjamin said.
“It’s a matter of de-coupling — one office responsible for fire issues in the building code and one office responsible for efficiency matters in the building code. It could be one way to get us further, faster.”
Because of the work Efficiency One has done over the years, Nova Scotia actually has more certified energy assessors than most provinces. Benjamin said while there are different ways of enforcing the new building code, the best way is to base it on a model for how to design a building.
“The people who can work with that are energy assessors who know building science,” Benjamin said. “Clean Nova Scotia and Efficiency One do the training.”
Duncan Williams said getting to tier 5 by 2030 is a worthy objective and after all the discussion since that Pan-Canadian agreement was signed seven years ago, he said it’s important to “start out and see where the path leads.”
After all, it’s buildings that are responsible for 42% of carbon emissions. Benjamin is both impatient and optimistic about the province’s ability to meet the net-zero objective by 2030.
“The standard is how you put the wheels in motion. I trust the ability of workers and builders in Nova Scotia to innovate to get us there,” Benjamin said.