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Passive House Has Competition: The British Columbia Energy Step Code

Updated: Nov 10, 2021

Photo by BC Energy Step Code

In 2014, the Provincial Government of British Columbia recognized the need for uniform guidelines for energy-efficient new buildings. At the time, a lack of consensus on efficiency standards in the British Columbia Building Code (BCBC) left municipal governments powerless to meet GHG reduction targets in the residential sector. Meanwhile, local builders felt confused and constrained by the various building requirements linked to the location of their project. As a result, the province consulted with local governments and building sector professionals until they reached a consensus in mid-2016. They established the foundation for the BC Energy Step Code (BCESC), later released for implementation in April 2017.

As a part of the CleanBC initiative, the province has committed to having all new builds operate at net-zero by 2032. While the BC Step Code is the primary strategy employed to help achieve this target, it must be noted that code use for a new build project is optional. The BCESC has two strains: one for dwellings like houses, small duplexes, and townhomes and the other for wood-framed residential tower blocks. Both pathways adopt a "staircase" approach to achieve improved building performance. The lower steps of the staircase are easy options to increase energy efficiency; as you move up the stairs, the targets become more ambitious. This approach allows builders to mix-and-match strategies to achieve an energy-efficient low-cost build.

Photo by BC Energy Step Code

Again, the BC step code is not a mandatory building code for any jurisdiction, but municipalities have the authority to require or incentivize the BCESC in their communities. The code adopts a similar approach to the passive house standard as it considers the home-as-a-system concept. It requires builders to meet specific performance requirements for a building's envelope, equipment and systems and airtightness. The code has been amended three times since 2017, allowing builders to creatively meet targets as new technologies emerge. The governing BC Energy Step Council states that lower ranks of the staircase will become required minimums in the coming years as the province approaches 2032 target deadlines.

So far, 79 districts in British Columbia have adopted the BCESC into local policy or by-laws. The City of Vancouver is one of few which have not adopted the code as the city has its own zero emissions building plan. While each district has the authority to incentivize the step code, the province has designed overarching rebate programs such as Better Homes and Better Buildings to encourage uptake of the BCESC. Similarly, the Step Code Council has provided extensive written and video guide material and training opportunities to ensure builders understand how to use the program and the enclosed efficiency strategies. This combination of education and incentives should ease the transition from the current BC Building Code to the more sustainable Energy Step Code.

As previously mentioned, homes built under the BCESC are similar to ones constructed to passive home standards. These high-efficiency structures reduce GHG emissions while increasing indoor thermal comfort and air quality. As a result, occupants will benefit from lower operational costs, improved durability and better health. Research shows that while there is no difference between BCESC and passive homes' ability to reduce GHG emissions per unit area, the passive house standard is more effective at lowering space heating emissions. In fact, BC Step Code reduces single-house space heating GHG emissions by 77% compared to passive houses' 89%.

Photo by BC Energy Step Code

There is a common misconception that building efficient houses has significantly higher upfront costs compared to code build homes. While Passive Buildings Canada has already explored this topic in a previous article, the Energy Step Code Council (ESCC) also addresses these concerns. In September 2017, BC housing and the ESCC released the BC Energy Step Code 2017 Metric Research Study (PDF).

This comprehensive report examines the standard efficiency and economics of a home built under the Energy Step Code. It concludes that achieving the lower steps of the BCESC requires only a modest increase in construction premiums, averaging around 2% (PDF). Similarly, the report explains that meeting various stages of the code for a six-story apartment complex has an additional cost ranging from $100- $4,215 per unit, and for a six-unit row house, that range is $560 - $9,400.These marginal increases in upfront costs are recouped by occupants who will benefit from the ideal indoor environment and long-term lower energy and maintenance costs.

In total, the British Columbia Energy Step Code is a financially viable and easy way to meet energy efficiency standards. While similar to the passive house standard, the mix-and-match approach allows designers and builders to choose the most economical way to achieve standards while allowing flexibility to adopt new materials as they are created. The BC Energy Step Council received the 2017 Climate and Energy Action Award and the 2018 Land Award for their dedication to creating this unique and sustainable addition to the BC Building Code.

While some rural areas are slow to adopt the BC Energy Step Code, other provinces and officials have noted its overall success in British Columbia. However, as time passes and 2030 peaks over the horizon, it is clear that the Step Code must shift to mandatory and drastic regulations accounting for embodied carbon to address the climate emergency. But, for now, the demand for homes built to BCESC standards is quickly growing. Homeowners recognize the thermal, health and cost benefits of having an efficient house while also realizing that these homes will retain their value over time. Some call for similar standards to be adopted across Canada in the hopes of establishing energy-efficient building practices to tackle various social and environmental concerns.

Articles on the PBC website reflect the views of the author and not necessarily those of PBC.