What are building codes?

Building codes are simply a regulatory instrument. They set out the requirements for the design and construction of residential or commercial buildings. Building codes ensure new construction meets minimum health, safety, and performance standards.

There are two types of building codes. Model codes, a set of suggested rules and practices that are only considered law when adopted; and adopted codes, model codes that have been enacted by a provincial, territorial, or municipal government.

In places where model codes are adopted into law, they are the building code for that jurisdiction and are considered the minimum requirement for health and safety and wellbeing as it relates to the construction and occupancy of buildings. 

Building codes are enforced by the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ). Through the building permit process, the AHJ reviews the plans submitted for the building for compliance with building codes.

What is a building energy code?

Building energy codes are a subset of building codes. Building energy codes specify minimum energy efficiency standards for an assortment of different building types including homes, commercial or institutional, or other large buildings. They may apply to both new buildings as well as those undergoing substantial renovations.

The goal of building energy codes is to improve the energy performance of building components, assemblies and equipment directly affecting energy use. This includes the building envelope, electrical lighting, mechanical heating, cooling and ventilation systems, and hot water systems.

Building energy codes determine a building’s long-term operational and environmental performance. Early thinking about how a building consumes energy, for example during the initial design phase, helps to lock-in savings through efficient design and help building owners avoid costly retrofits in the future that are meant to increase the building’s performance.

Not only do building energy codes help to protect the occupants and ensure their health and comfort, but they also help to make the building more durable and resilient. For example, measures such as increased insulation levels, energy efficient windows, and airtightness combined with proper ventilation are key to preventing moisture issues such as mould and rot that affect the integrity of the buildings structure.  

Why are building energy codes important now?

Canadian buildings use a lot of energy to protect occupants from our harsh winters and hot summers. In fact, our homes and places of work and recreation account for about a quarter of Canada’s total final energy consumption and approximately 17% of greenhouse gas emissions when emissions associated with electricity used in buildings are included.

In addition to offering a broad range of benefits, building energy codes affect up to 81% of energy use in houses and up to 68% of energy use in buildings and have come to be recognized as the quickest, cheapest and cleanest way to improve energy efficiency in the building sector. And, as energy use in buildings continues to rise over the next decade, building energy codes will continue to play a critical role in reducing energy waste and emissions associated with the energy buildings consume.    

Why are building energy codes important now?

Over 40 national governments and sub-national governments around the world have building energy codes in place. They offer an effective long-term energy efficiency approach and, through tiered codes, provide a pathway of incremental targets that take regional differences into account and provide a flexible framework for the provinces and territories.  

Energy Efficiency Trends in Canada: Residential
Energy Efficiency Trends in Canada: Commercial

Building energy codes in Canada

Canada’s first building energy code was introduced in 1997. Since then, Canada’s building energy codes have placed greater emphasis on increasing the energy efficiency of the places we live, work and play. Most recently, this evolution has led to the introduction of a tiered approach to reducing energy waste in Canadian buildings in the proposed 2020 national model codes.

In 2016, Canada’s Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change saw all levels of government commit to having a “net-zero energy ready” building code by 2030. This commitment led to the development of the (proposed) 2020 national model codes. A framework which sees the energy efficiency of new buildings progress through incrementally more stringent tiers towards a NZEr standard for all new buildings.

While there is room to improve the proposed 2020 model codes, they are an first step towards the transformation of Canada’s built environment and towards a net-zero economy. Build Smart -Canada’s Buildings Strategy predicts that with these model codes in place energy efficient new homes and buildings constructed to a NZEr model code could save up to 5.6 MT CO2e each year by 2030.

Critical path to 2030

What’s so special about tiered codes?

BC Energy Step Code for part 9 (homes)

In the past, building codes have established the minimum standard of construction – they defined the lowest standard for constructing a building in a given jurisdiction. 

Tiered codes, first introduced in British Columbia in 2017 with its Energy Step Code, offer a different approach to achieving increased energy efficiency in buildings. Tiered codes, including Canada’s 2020 national model codes, offer a progressive series of performance-based steps that start with a familiar base building code.  

Moving upward through the tiers, the energy used to operate the building is incrementally reduced and, consequently, the energy performance of the building increases.

Tiered codes make sure that everyone in the buildings industry moves toward increased energy performance together and competes on the same terms. By raising the minimum standard of construction incrementally, tiered codes raise the energy performance of the entire sector, but also make it possible for advanced builders and designers to build towards higher energy performance levels. And, by clearly setting out the requirements years in advance all those involved can prepare for future changes in the building energy code.

With a tiered code, AHJs — the provinces, territories, and municipalities with jurisdiction over building construction — have greater flexibility in how they implement the building code. This aspect of the tiered codes is particularly valuable for two reasons.

    1. Tiered codes eliminate the need for AHJs to develop unique building codes to pursue their jurisdiction’s specific energy efficiency objectives.
    2. Municipalities looking to implement aggressive energy efficiency and carbon reduction strategies can easily choose a tier that meets the knowledge and capacity of their community.
  Who benefits from tiered codes

This project was made possible with funding from The Atmospheric Fund (TAF)

© Efficiency Canada 2021

Sign up to take action

You have Successfully Subscribed!