By Ted McIntyre

NBC 2020 changes bring harmonization, but at what cost?

Every province has its unique challenges—weather included—which has led to a diverse set of building codes across Canada. But that different set of rules has long made life difficult for companies doing business in Canada. And that’s a critical element of the new round of national code changes coming online at the start of 2024, says Andy Oding, V.P. and Director of Building Science at Building Science Canada.

“This building code harmonization is about a lot more than energy,” Oding suggests. “The reason this change is taking place is because of the Free Trade Act. Because of the varying building codes between Ontario, Quebec and the rest of Canada, it was very difficult for manufacturers and industry members around the world to get approvals. So this will enhance free trade and bring innovation.”

Harmonization will pose a significant change for Ontario builders in both adoption and implementation. Ensuring industry members are ready to navigate those challenges is essential, notes OHBA CEO Luca Bucci. “To ensure that members are able to successfully apply these changes, OHBA is aligning our strategic plan so that members have technical resources within the association to rely upon.”

“Big changes for builders have a ripple effect throughout the design and construction processes,” adds Mike Memme, the Chair of OHBA’s Building Code Subcommittee. “OHBA has been working in partnership with the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing so that they are fully aware of how the building code changes will impact builders in Ontario.”

We spoke to four experts on the front lines regarding the code changes: Memme; Oding; John Lane, V.P. of Ontario Building Officials Association; and Miyoko Oikawa, Manager of Research and Innovation at Doug Tarry Homes, who has been working alongside lawyer and LEED Green Associate Victoria Coffin to establish a broad stakeholder council to support the implementation and harmonization of the National Building Code within Ontario.

What do these changes mean in terms of improved efficiency and costs?

Andy Oding: “I was originally involved with the development of the previous SB12 standard as a builder in 2012 and 2017, and participated in the development of the new NBC 2020 9.36 Energy Efficiency Guidance. We have performed analysis with a number of Ontario builders, looking at costs and applications. It looks like about a 15% increase over SB12 2017 in current energy efficiency. Prescriptive compliance with NBC 9.36 (Tier 3) will likely add $2,000 to $3,000 per single detached home, similar to the 2012 and 2017 changes. However, performance compliance with NBC 9.36 (Tier 3) will enable builders to meet code for significantly less—e.g. $150-$1,500 per home.”

Mike Memme: “There are proposed code changes will clean up some areas of concern that builders have with the Ontario code, but there are other changes that are going to add costs. When you raise the energy efficiency bar, you raise the cost. You save on energy, but it’s a case of diminishing returns. There’s a little runway left, but we’re approaching that tipping point with this next code change where the extra cost no longer makes sense.”

One issue is that municipal green standards can be implemented through local bylaws over and above OBC standards.

Andy Oding: “You’d think a company like ours, which deals with energy efficiency and building science, would love them, but they’re the bane of our existence. It creates a different code in every area for builders and developers. I frankly feel sorry for planners and building officials, since they’re being asked to administer something that’s very complex and the enforcement of such is often questionable under the Ontario Building Code Act. Some municipalities are telling developers/builders, ‘Do net-zero!’ And we’re asking, ‘Net-zero what? NZ Energy or NZ Carbon? Operational carbon or embodied carbon? 

“Consistency in the codes is important in keeping homes affordable and effective in meeting climate change challenges. We have to be a little careful with not-so-well defined municipal guidance and goals. While they may be concerned with the environment and climate change, what’s often forgotten about is building science. We’ve seen some municipalities pushing hard on increasing efficiency of new-home developments, only to find out that without balanced consideration to operational and embodied carbon it can unintentionally result in increased levels of carbon and more expensive operation of the home.”

Mike Memme: “The problem with municipalities asking for higher code requirements is that the building departments are not allowed to ask for anything above code, so now we’ve got planning departments doing it instead. And so we have those who understand the code the least making changes to it. That was never anticipated by the code development folks. Some building departments don’t even know that their planning department is requiring a higher level of energy efficiency. So it’s challenging, and with the new code it’s going to be more challenging. The new code has five tiers, and to get to the fifth tier you may actually burn more carbon than you’ll ever get back through energy savings.”

Miyoko Oikawa: “From a builder’s perspective, it’s difficult to have that dialogue with munici-palities where green standards are being implemented without a full technical analysis to support it. Or perhaps the technical analysis was done by a third party without expertise on the construction side.” 

How will these code changes affect housing affordability and supply?

Miyoko Oikawa: “Initially, when this next round is adopted, we could see a delay in permit applications as building code officials and industry come up to speed with the new requirements and a new prescriptive approach to getting your permit.”

The biggest potential side effects?

Miyoko Oikawa: “Increased costs and confusion amongst industry and plans examiners. If you look at Part 9 (of the NBC), even prescriptive compliance, a lot of the tables use different language than we’re used to. If we’re talking about the general RSI (thermal resistance) of a wall assembly, is that going to be generally accepted or will I have to show a calculation, and will the method I’m using be the same that an examiner is using? Currently, I feel that the shortened implementation timeline will have significant immediate impacts on different sectors such as permit delays and confusion in interpretation and enforcement.”

John Lane: “The number of tiers is not so much the issue as the number of potential variations for designers within each tier. And the more complicated the portion of the code becomes, the more room there is for errors. In the end, building officials, especially in rural areas where they may not have the expertise, may require all submissions to be from an energy advisor, which will only add to development costs and create backlogs. Another concern is the chronic shortage of building officials across Ontario.”

mike memme: “One thing Ontario home builders will have to get their heads wrapped around is the move from a ‘packages’ energy system, which we’ve been using in SB12, to the ‘points’ system used in the new 9.36. The Ontario code has packages that builders can choose from. The national code does not. There, builders meet certain tiers through the points they receive by making energy-efficiency implementations.”

How can we improve this process?

John Lane: “When a building official gets to a site and has a question, they need to reach out to the Ministry to get interpretations of the code. This can cause  delays, especially around technical provisions that are interpreted differently depending on which municipality you’re building in. To address this, the OBOA has created BCAS, the Building Code Advisory Service. It’s a group of building officials who will receive code interpretation questions and dispense advice in a timely fashion. The sooner building officials can respond back with a rock-solid technical interpretation of the code, the sooner a project can carry on. It’s our hope this will be a driving factor in streamlining the home building industry.

Is OHBA underrepresented at the national level with respect to code changes?

Miyoko Oikawa: “If you consider how much of Canada that Ontario makes up in terms of new housing starts, that really should be worked into the governing structure. Ontario should have more weight in decision making. How will we have a separate voice, since we have our own supply chain and costs problems that are specific to Ontario that we need to advocate for?”

Andy Oding: “There’s a big number of Ontario-based participants on the NBC standing committees. That said, the harmonization with national codes poses a challenge in that the provincial HBAs need to lead a well-coordinated participation and timely response to both national code work and to the provincial adoption process. Most of the other provincial HBAs have full-time staff members who actually work on technical code review, guidance and coordination of local and provincial builder feedback and education. The world of codes and standards is becoming increasingly complex. We love being active members of OHBA and four local Ontario HBAs, but if there’s any place we can put our membership money to good use right now, it would be putting good people in paid positions at the OHBA to be active at the national code development level, fronting Ontario’s interest and builder/developer industry and providing ongoing guidance to the Ontario industry regarding technical challenges and opportunities. Our neighbours in Alberta and B.C. have this, and the other provinces as well. It’s a paradigm shift for us, but I think it’s what needs to happen.”

This is going to be a tight window to meet deadlines.

Mikoyo Oikawa: “You know that horrible nightmare you have, where the exam is tomorrow and you haven’t studied? Well, this code change is like that. We had a 45-day consultation period. Sometime early this year, the changes to the Ontario Building Code need to be shown to industry. They will come into effect probably January 2024. Hypothetically, if they’re released in March, we’d have less than 12 months to adopt and understand them and put them into play for our 2024 projects.”

John Lane: “OBOA was advised by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing that there are 7,000 code provisions and over 2,000 anticipated changes in the next round of amendments, with another equal number of harmonization changes following the release of the next National Building Code in 2025. It’s unrealistic to expect the industry and practitioners to be prepared for the significant amount of change in less than 18-24 months from the release of the next edition. And in that same time frame, it would not be unexpected for the next batch of code harmonization changes to be released for our consultation review. So we’re trying to learn the new code changes while also volunteering our opinions on the pending code changes. It’s unrealistic to expect the industry, including the OBOA and George Brown College and other educational institutions, to alone fund the training and education needed to bring practitioners up to speed. By our own estimate, 3,000 to 4,000 person hours will be required to revise existing materials just in this round of changes. I expect permit fees to go up.”

Andy Oding: “I’m worried less about the nuances and technical details and far more about the time frame. In 2006 we had this new thing called an energy code in Ontario, and that only took us until 2012! Now we have basically one year. Retraining BCIN (licensing) in class with all your staff between now and then, well, good luck! I think that’s why we have to separate the harmonization effort from the technical performance increase. With the NBC 2020 9.36, we now have five tiers, Tiers 4 and 5 being considered Net Zero Ready. Already the work is underway for 2025 to tweak some of the technical guidance, but also to develop a building code for alterations to existing homes and buildings. As an Ontario builder/renovator, if you have concerns, you need to get involved in the code process. There is now intention to provide some guidance for operational carbon reduction within the 2025 NBC. We may see some guidance on embodied carbon reduction by 2030, along with enhanced resiliency requirements. Working groups are already in place, where they’re exploring whether air conditioning should be required as a mandatory item in some areas of Canada. So get used to this pace, because I don’t see it changing very much.” 

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