B.C. setting new standard for building energy performance

By James Glave and Robyn Wark

Photo courtesy Grosvenor Group
Photo courtesy Grosvenor Group

Three years ago, the British Columbia government said it would require all new buildings to meet a net-zero, energy-ready performance by 2032, the highest level of performance achievable today. To deliver on that goal, it kicked off the development of a regulation that is now steadily transforming communities across the province.

The BC Energy Step Code came into legal force in December 2017. It is not a standalone code, but a part of the British Columbia Building Code (BCBC) local governments may adopt, if they wish, to promote or require a level of energy efficiency in new construction that exceeds minimum building code requirements (See “How it Works”).

A revolution in code development

In the past year-and-a-half, local governments in British Columbia, representing more than 70 per cent of new residential construction activity in the province, have adopted the regulation. It is innovative in at least two respects.

First, from their earliest meetings, the team developing the BC Energy Step Code concluded the mix of incremental changes and incentives typically characterizing any code development would not get the province to its ambitious 2032 goal. So the team, and the government, started with that target and worked backward from it.

Second, the BC Energy Step Code is rooted in measurable performances. Instead of prescribing specific combinations of materials and approaches, it indicates minimum performance outcomes via a series of metrics, and groups them into ‘steps.’ For example, there are five steps for homes, with Step 5 being the most efficient house that can be built today. In this respect, it puts the industry in the driver’s seat. Builders, architects, and engineers work with energy advisors to find the best and most cost-effective solution to achieving the required or incentivized performance level.

Building professionals cannot just wing it: They must demonstrate, via an energy model and onsite airtightness test(s), their proposed project will meet the technical requirements of a given step. The BC Energy Step Code uses a range of metrics. For Part 9 buildings, the code measures:

  • thermal energy demand intensity (TEDI), expressed in kWh/(m2·year);
  • the percentage lower than EnerGuide Reference House;
  • mechanical energy use intensity (MEUI), expressed in kWh/(m2·year); and
  • airtightness, expressed in air changes per hour at a 50-Pa (1-psf) pressure differential (ach 50).

As a growing pool of local governments has begun using the BC Energy Step Code, British Columbia has emerged as a hub of innovation and learning on energy performance. Architects, engineers, manufacturers, and designers across the province have been collaborating with energy advisors, builders, and developers to ensure their projects meet the new performance specs.

Based on strong local government interest in the new code, the province has aligned the steps of the BC Energy Step Code with regulatory requirements in BCBC. The 2022, 2027, and 2032 editions of the code will include increasingly more stringent performance requirements (Figure 1). In this way, the province has sent a clear signal to the industry net-zero, energy-ready new construction is coming, triggering a huge amount of training.

To understand how the BC Energy Step Code works, it is best to picture a staircase in which each ‘step’ represents a higher level of energy efficiency, measured by defined building science metrics. Builders working in communities that have referenced the standard in their bylaws must demonstrate their proposed projects will deliver on the technical performance requirements associated with the required ‘step’. To do so, they commission an energy model of their planned project and submit it, along with the usual drawings, to a building official when applying for a permit. The building official confirms the proposed project will meet the necessary performance requirements, and issues a permit. On completion, the builder will submit an airtightness report to the local government to confirm the completed building checks the right boxes

Step 1 focuses on capacity building. It requires builders to demonstrate they are complying with the minimum energy-efficiency requirements in the British Columbia Building Code (BCBC). The top of the staircase—Step 5 for single-family homes— denotes a net-zero, energy-ready performance level, the most energy-efficient building that can be built today.

A wave of high-performance projects

B.C. is also witnessing a huge amount of construction. With the added boost provided by the CleanBC Better Buildings program, a competitive provincial incentive program targeting tall and complex Part 3 buildings, British Columbia is now witnessing a rush of new projects built to the top step of the BC Energy Step Code.

These also include many residences targeting Passive House (PH) certification. For reference, a building meeting the PH standard would fulfil the requirements of the top step for both Part 9 and Part 3 buildings. Also, tall and complex buildings are trying to meet the top step of the BC Energy Step Code. For example:

  • Dialog has designed an office building for the corner of Clark Drive and Great Northern Way in East Vancouver (a natural foods company will be the lead tenant);
  • DB Services of Victoria, B.C., will build Peatt Commons Phase 2, a 72-unit, mixed-use project in Langford, B.C.; and
  • Grosvenor Americas will develop a new building at Howe Street and Pacific Boulevard in downtown Vancouver to provide production and office space for the city’s arts and culture community.
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