Vancouver’s quest to become Canada’s greenest city remains on track after the city council rejected a request to delay the start of a zero-emissions building requirement by a year.
In a letter to the Vancouver City Council on June 1, City Manager Paul Mochrie cited long permitting delays complicated by the pandemic as he proposed a one-year delay in enforcing zero-emission regulations that were to begin at the start of 2022.
But the council voted June 9 to stick with the plan.
“Approximately 70 speakers came to City Council to make their voices heard that climate action cannot be delayed and Vancouver needs to continue to demonstrate leadership,” city spokeswoman Alexandra Turnbull said in an email. “As a result, Council voted to move ahead with the Vancouver Building By-law requirements for zero-emission space and water heating in new low-rise homes in January 2022 and improve building envelopes so less energy is needed for space heating.”
The regulations are part of the city’s Climate Emergency Action Plan, aimed at cutting Vancouver’s emissions from buildings in half by 2030, compared to 2007 levels, and reducing embodied emissions in new buildings by 40%, when compared to 2018 projects. An estimated 54% of carbon emissions can be traced to the use of natural gas in buildings, according to a summary of the plan, underscoring the impact of requiring emissions-free space and water heating.
While Vancouver moves toward tighter energy and building requirements, city workers have been struggling to keep up with increasingly complex licensing and permitting applications.
Building trade organizations are unhappy with both the delays and added costs. The Canadian Institute of Plumbing and Heating criticized the scheduled ban on gas heating and hot water appliances as a burden on homebuyers. And the Homebuilders Association of Vancouver (HAVAN) had claimed a full implementation of the city’s net-zero standards would add $48,000 to the cost of a typical new house, according to a report published at Western Investor.
Further, a tree-protection ordinance required an arborist’s report, which could add as much as $1500 to the cost of the project while delaying construction, Western Investor reported.
Vancouver, a city of 631,000, is the most populous city in the province of British Columbia where housing costs are among the highest in the country. The plumbing and heating trade group said zero-emissions requirements would just make that situation worse.
“The program proposed by the city clearly sets its sights on those least able to afford it within the second-least affordable city, rather than on other industries,” the group wrote in a letter addressed to Mayor Kennedy Stewart, The Tri City News reported.
In his report to the council, Mochrie said increased regulatory complexity combined with technology gaps and COVID impacts created an “unsustainable imbalance between application demand and staff capacity” to process permit applications.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm due to the volume and complexity of projects requiring permits, while at the same time resulting in a dramatic shift in city staff working from home but without the necessary, supporting technology infrastructure,” the city manager wrote. “Available staff resources are currently fully allocated to processing permit applications from previous years. Yet new applications continue to flood in . . . “
Under a plan approved by the council last year, all new houses of three stories or less would be required to have electrically powered space heating and water heating equipment. Insulation and window performance also would have to be improved. The permitting backlog is now threatening financial losses for the city because permits could not be processed quickly enough, and increasing the risk that contractors would simply do the work without getting a permit.
Mochrie said he recognized that a delay would slow progress in emissions reductions. “However,” he added, “the measures proposed are presented as temporary and targeted to help eliminate backlog. Once operating pressures, processing times and backlogs have reduced to levels acceptable by Council, the intent is to reconsider these policies.”
The city council voted to speed up permit review times, but also recognized that “our critical work to address climate change must continue,” Turnbull said.
Part of a larger provincial plan
Malcolm Taylor, a designer and builder on neighboring Vancouver Island and a frequent contributor in GBA forums, said in an email that British Columbia has had a voluntary Energy Step Code for several years. It encourages more energy-efficient designs through a number of steps. To date, he said, only Vancouver has progressed to the point of the final step of net-zero-energy ready.
Taylor said that improvements in energy efficiency means that the push to get to net-zero-ready “doesn’t seem that onerous.” (For more, you can take a look at this guide.)
“To me the biggest impact of code improvements over the past several decades has been that they preclude owner-builders (except the extremely dedicated ones whose projects we see on GBA) from the process,” Taylor said. “But that ship has long sailed. For better or worse, house design and construction is now a completely specialized field.”
Scott Gibson is a contributing writer at Green Building Advisor and Fine Homebuilding magazine.