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Changing Building Codes and Creating Resilience

A lobbying tour de force faces an immoveable object

by Jen Stotland

Constructed wetlands as part of a grey water system.  This kind of environmental innovation is being limited by building codes.  Photo: Sustainable Sanitation Alliance
Constructed wetlands as part of a grey water system. This kind of environmental innovation is being limited by building codes. Photo: Sustainable Sanitation Alliance

K'jipuktuk (Halifax) -The Federal and Provincial Building Codes tell us what we can and cannot build. While municipal bylaws affect land use, these codes dictate the buildings themselves, with such things as fire exits and window placements. How can we change building codes to create more environmentally friendly buildings, buildings that contribute to community resilience, the Ecology Action Centre (EAC) wants to know.  According to builder Andrew Holley, not easily.

Holley, past President of the Nova Scotia Home Builders' Association Holley and Director of Build Services for Habitat for Humanity Nova Scotia, spoke on a panel organized by the EAC about how building codes affect sustainable building design as well as community resilience in the face of extreme weather events and other natural disasters.  The audience included builders, engineers, and members of the general public who were interested in environmentally innovative design and frustrated by the ways the Building Code limits such innovation.  

The code system was designed to address occupancy, fire risk and safety issues. It was only in the 1990s in response to our Kyoto commitments that the Canadian Building Code began to address energy efficiency and insulation

In Canada, by virtue of our climate, homes are the number one emitter of greenhouse gasses - more than the entire tar sands operation. A newly built house will cost $1600 a year to heat, and produce around 6.5 tons of green house gas emissions per year. Although emissions from houses are still significant, they are less than half of what they were 70 years ago.  

According to Holley, the gains have been driven by political will, but also by consumer demand –new homes that are cheap to heat sell more easily.  More recently, a lack of political will and the elimination of our Kyoto commitments have resulted in efficiency programs like Enercan and Energuide having their budgets slashed, and the R-2000 and One Tonne Challenge programs being eliminated entirely.

But lack of programs and resources aren’t the only barriers to people who want more environmentally sustainable homes.  A further challenge is that inspectors in different regions have different interpretations of the Building Codes, says Holley.  

For example, Lloyd Williams of Full Moon Tiny Shelters in Mahone Bay was told he could not have a grey water system on his site. Grey water treatment is the practice of using biological systems like an aquarium or a small wetland to treat domestic wastewater.  

"You can't do [grey water] in Sydney and you can't do it Mahone Bay but you can do it in Halifax and they're all governed by one guide,” says Holley.  "If you really want to do something to change the way we do things in NS, get all the building inspector in the province on the same page."  This sort of coordinated training used to be provided by programs like R-2000, which has been cut, says Holley.  
One bright light on the horizon is a tendency within the entire industry to move from prescriptive building codes - rules telling which materials to use and how - to writing performance-based specifications.  Performance-based speculations outline which numbers need to be achieved, such as insulation R-values.  This allows for much greater flexibility in methods and materials and opens the door to natural materials such as straw bale, or other non-traditional techniques.  

Although the system is slow to change, individuals are pushing for change, says Holley, who has changed a lot himself.  "Twenty years ago I wasn't a very good guy when it came to [efficiency], It was about putting a house up, getting it sold for as much money as we could sell it for, and lets move on the next house." His perspective changed during the One Tonne Challenge project of 2004 when he started to measure the footprint of carbon emissions embodied in his construction, and how much that could be reduced.  

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Other types of construction?

How does this apply to other construction techniques, such as underground houses or Earthship Houses?  Can we build houses that are completely off grid?  Can we put windmills on them?


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