Building green has been a buzz phrase for years. Bylaws and building codes have been nudging B.C. homebuilders toward a more energy efficient, environmentally sustainable and healthy building strategy for the better part of a decade. However, the recent long-lead implementation of the new BC Energy Step Code has Squamish actively engaging and demonstrating leadership where other communities are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“Squamish is right in there with the best of them,” said Bob Deeks of RDC Fine Homes.
“Squamish put its hand up pretty early on – I think right now there are 16 municipalities that have notified the provincial government that they’re interested in engaging with the Step Code, and three that have adopted it.
“Squamish was one of the original four or five that gave notice to the province that this was something they were interested in,” said Deeks, who a little over a year ago was asked to present to council and subsequently form a committee of local builders, architects, and energy specialists to help usher in the new code.
The new standard sets performance requirements for new construction only and groups them into “steps” that apply across various building types and regions of the province.
For houses and small residential buildings, there are five steps; larger and more complex residential buildings have four steps. Each step represents a more stringent set of energy-efficiency requirements. As communities climb the steps, they gradually increase the level of energy efficiency in their new buildings.
According to the Province of B.C.’s official website, local governments can voluntarily choose whether or not to reference any part of the BC Energy Step Code. Squamish has stated it will opt in for July 1 of this year.
“The BC Energy Step Code allows local governments to move along the pathway to net-zero energy ready at their own pace, relative to industry capacity and community demand,” the website states. A net-zero energy-ready building can be defined as a building built to high energy-efficiency standards such that it could, with additional measures, generate enough onsite energy to meet its own energy needs, explained builder Jason Wood of Diamond Head Development, the company responsible for Squamish’s largest Built-Green development in Squamish.
“Some factors that will increase the energy efficiency of a home, such as increased R-value in insulation and an overall more efficient envelope; the transfer of air and energy in the house from interior to exterior or vice versa; vapour barriers; focusing on smaller areas in homes that get left behind like insulating electrical boxes, joist ends, around windows – it’s finding the little cracks that you can seal up,” said Wood, who also sits on the district’s Step Code committee.
“It’s great that there’s talk about this and it will be even better when we see action,” said Lauren Baldwin, who, along with her partner Kevin Henshaw, electively built a 1,200 square-foot-energy efficient-certified house in Hospital Hill.
“When we built a few years ago, Squamish was not as advanced as some other communities in terms of taking leadership. It was important to us to be proactive and not just build to the minimum requirements, which is what we did. We want to be responsible stewards of the environment and do what we can, where we can.”
For the couple’s build, energy efficiency was achieved through thickened walls (eight inches), an air-to-water heat pump for heating, and HVAC and window design to maximize passive systems.
According to the District, builders can work with a certified energy advisor to ensure building designs meet all applicable energy performance requirements. Energy advisors employ specialized software to analyze construction plans and determine how well a building performs.
Richard Haywood, an energy efficiency expert who works for BluTree Indoor Climate Systems, has been advising the committee on ways to incorporate efficiencies in new builds, with a particular emphasis on healthy homes that have sufficient fresh air exchange and air movement, in addition to adequate heating and cooling systems. “We spend 77 per cent of our time indoors. Indoor air quality is imperative to its occupants,” Haywood said.
“The tighter we build these houses, the more issues we have with radon, mould, and even illnesses. It’s crucial to look at the health of a home in terms of airflow and exchange.” The District is buying into the program with due diligence.
“The District is very, very conscious of wanting to get this right,” said Deeks, adding that the provincial rollout stretches to 2032. “They don’t want to get it wrong in terms of imposing significant additional costs to the industry and they don’t want to reach too far and realize they don’t have the capacity and create a backlog on the permitting process.”
Wood is buoyed that council is getting behind the new code as quickly as it is. “Hats off to the District of Squamish, because what they are doing is being proactive in this area by creating this committee of builders, architects, developers to determine how we should introduce these upcoming regulations into the building permit process,” he said, adding that the District is leading the process by introducing a number of training mechanisms for the building community so they can learn how to run tests as part of the process. “At the start of any cycle, things are very costly, but as time goes by they gain economy of scale and become less costly and easier to implement. If you ask anyone you are building a home for, ‘Do you want to build a home that’s more environmentally friendly?’
They all say yes, until you tell them the cost, and then only some of them can say yes. “It’s really exciting to be on that committee and see how the District of Squamish is jumping in with two feet and taking this on. Trying to do something for the environment is such a large and overwhelming task for any of us, so it’s exciting to think that in relation to your line of work that you can give back to the world, to the environment, in some way.” •