Canada's Building Code Needs Some Green Ambition

The national model building code needs to stretch to meet 2030 climate targets

by Gavin MacRae

Canada’s 2020 national model building code falls short on the ambition needed to meet 2030 climate targets for building energy efficiency, says a new report by Efficiency Canada, an energy efficiency research and advocacy organization at Carleton University.

Energy used in buildings accounts for roughly 15% of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions and a quarter of total energy consumption. To curtail this pollution, the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change (PCF) calls for all new buildings in Canada to be Net-Zero Energy Ready by 2030 – meaning buildings are constructed to such a high standard of efficiency that the owner can add on a renewable energy source that meets the building’s total energy needs.

“We can’t afford, given the climate crisis, to have inefficient buildings locked in,” says Kevin Lockhart, the lead author of the report. “We have to aim for the best performing new buildings we can between now and 2050.”

Doing so requires not only ratcheting up the stringency of building codes on energy efficiency, but also a fundamental shift away from traditionally designed building codes that serve only to create a “minimum acceptable standard,” toward a “stretch” model that encourages higher levels of ambition to meet climate goals, the report says.

“The code is not only just a minimum, it’s really signaling where we need to go,” says Brendan Haley, the report’s co-author.

Building codes are provincial jurisdiction – provinces and territories are free to design and implement their own – but the national model building code sets the bar, promotes harmonization of building codes, and sends a signal to the building market on future expectations. Some provinces follow the national model code as-is, and some modify the code to suit their needs.

The 2020 national model building code, which won’t be revised until 2025, presents “significant challenges” to get to Net-Zero Energy Ready by 2030, Lockhart says.

“We can’t afford, given the climate crisis, to have inefficient buildings.”

The report points to a lack of mandatory air leak tests, ineffective measuring of energy code compliance, and less stringent best-practice standards for large buildings, as specific examples of where the 2020 model building code could be stronger.

British Columbia leads the country on building efficiency with the BC Energy Step Code, which municipalities can voluntarily adopt and which now represents most new building construction in the province. Even so, Haley says BC is aiming to meet Net-Zero Energy Ready requirements by 2032, two years behind the PCF deadline – and that doesn’t bode well for all the provinces lagging behind BC.

The report lays out two key policy recommendations to help ensure building codes in Canada are responding adequately to the climate crisis:

  • Clear ministerial direction from the federal government, with mandates to develop an energy efficient and zero-carbon standard for building codes to transform the buildings sector.
  • Connect codes to a broader policy mix using a building policy “champion” in the federal government, to “ensure that our national codes actively encourage the market transformation towards highly efficient and low-carbon buildings.”

The report, Strengthening Canada’s Building Code Process to Achieve Net-Zero Emissions, can be read and downloaded at

Watershed Sentinel Dec2020-Jan2021 CoverThis article appears in our December 2020 | January 2021 issue.

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