The following is an excerpt from my ebook, “How to Future Proof Your Home: A Guide to Building with Energy Intelligence in Cold Climates.”
We live in a changing world where the only real certainty at the moment is that energy prices from traditional sources will rise and things have the potential to get better or get worse. In a world where scientists have been telling us for decades that climate change is occurring and is man-made, many people lament and wonder what they can do to make things better other than recycling, driving less (or more efficiently) and making smart buying decisions. The reality is that a construction boom is happening in the prairies at the moment, and it brings with it the potential for great ecological and economic opportunity.
This ebook is written with the intention to give you the consumer the power and knowledge that you need in order to get the highest efficiency home for the lowest cost from your builder. You see, I’m not an expert in the intricacies of the building code, but I can tell you one thing: the building code in Canada is not designed for the climate in the Prairie Provinces – and as many efficiency experts would argue the majority of Canada. This is because:
When it comes to the building code concerning insulation (R-value[i]), the code is the LOWEST standard that must be met to avoid breaking the law.
Why is this exactly? The current building code allows you to build any assembly you want as long as you can keep the insides warm. In other words energy efficiency has traditionally never been part of the building code of Canada. Hence, houses and other buildings being built today are being built to a standard that doesn’t care how much energy is consumed by the building over its lifetime.[ii] When you consider that buildings consume the most energy per sector in North America, it is essentially a no-brainer as to why.
The good news is that a certain level of energy efficiency is required with the upcoming changes to the existing code. This level of efficiency is determined by the number of “heating degree days” of a particular area or region.[iii] Though this new energy code has yet to be legislated anywhere in Canada, this is a huge improvement over the voluntary efficiency standards that are currently in place. However, the problem is that the provinces have the option as to whether they will adopt the model energy code provisions or not. Such a decision will definitely affect the economic direction that a particular region will take over the long term and hence will determine the resulting energy dependence of the population within that region. This is one of the primary reasons that I have spent several years and many unpaid weeks of my life learning and compiling this information in order to write this ebook. People need to know this information before our society takes a path from which it is very difficult and extremely costly to turn back … namely, the path of continued fossil fuel dependence.
On the international stage, Canadians (and in particular, Western Canadians) get the finger pointed at them for having a very high carbon footprint per capita in comparison to the rest of the world’s citizens. Given the information above, there should be little doubt as to why this is the case.
It is worth noting that past legislators throughout Canada could have chosen to improve this standard and make it into law many years ago to reduce our society’s energy dependence. This has been proven in places with higher energy costs such as Sweden, where in the 1970s the government stepped in and legislated much greater energy efficiency in new construction than is currently only suggested in Canada.[iv] If our leaders had the same foresight as those of less energy-rich countries, our current dependence on fossil fuels and rankings on the world stage in terms of efficiency would be far more heartening. Our voluntary compliance with regard to energy code, combined with our extreme climate, is one of the top reasons that Canada has ranked second last of the 12 nations studied to evaluate energy efficiency.[v]
While a policy to ensure a higher standard of energy efficiency would be the best solution towards combating climate change and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, it seems that the push will have to come from elsewhere. My intent is that by familiarizing yourself with the content in this ebook, CITIZENS AND CONSUMERS will now have the power, and will choose to exercise the power to personally implement or direct their hired designer or builder to implement techniques that will greatly reduce their individual (and our collective) dependency on fossil fuels.
The statement above might sound revolutionary, but think about it.
If you live in any of the Prairie Provinces or territories, you are among the 1 percent of the world’s population that lives in the coldest inhabited climate on earth! If you live anywhere in Canada, you are among the top 3 percent.[vi]
To gain a broader perspective on the topic, consider that the national building code is a standard that was written for the majority of Canada in a time when energy costs were low and global warming was not an issue. At that time, the price of added insulation was more costly than simply burning some gas, oil or wood for heat. This standard has since evolved slowly as conditions have changed, but unfortunately it is still way behind for the current world conditions.
So why don’t we just legislate vast improvements immediately? While that is the ultimate solution, the problem is that there is a lack of the skilled industry knowledge and expertise that is necessary to ensure compliance with such legislation. Essentially, with the current labour and market conditions, the codes can’t evolve too fast or changes would potentially overwhelm many professionals within the industry, such as inspectors, contractors, designers, builders, etc. As such, the perceived risks that designers/builders face while undertaking projects increase due to the uncertainty that they now face. Such risks would undoubtedly be passed on to consumers and hence the price of housing/building stock would be prone to significant increases. This situation is even more complicated because politics are involved.
Politicians are elected by the people within an area to represent local interests and are expected to work in the best interest of constituents to move society forward in a positive manner. Although many builders and designers would be happy to build more efficient structures, being required to do so is another matter. In other words, when a legislator tries to change the code drastically, they are basically adding complication and cost to an established practice, making it more likely that they will lose their jobs. Consequently, most politicians who are not looking at the changing dynamics of the world in years to come are not likely to push for such changes, as many people without the understanding in this ebook may be prone to revolt, seeing the changes as government interference. The reality is that continual innovation and efficiency should be the goal of a progressive and mature society.
When you combine this dilemma with the large revenues that are generated for the government by the fossil fuel industry, there is little doubt as to why change happens much slower than is necessary to combat the current environmental situation regarding energy. Thus it is up to innovators and forward thinking citizens (like you) to push the envelope and try to influence others while the majority continues on its present course with business as usual. Thus, even with recent proposed improvements to the code, the energy usage of our buildings is still much higher than is necessary and this is mainly a result of the low consumer price of natural gas.
[i] R-value is the imperial measure of thermal resistance, which North Americans tend to be more familiar with. The metric and thus worldwide version of R-value is RSI, which will not be used as reference in this publication.
[ii] If you look back at older homes, you can see this evolution over time, which basically correlates to the price of energy. Prior to the 1970s, a 2 x 4 wall insulated to R14 was considered sufficient in Canada. During the energy crisis of the 1970s many people began to implement a much higher standard with the advent of double wall construction. But since energy prices dropped in the 1980s, a lesser standard has been adopted. Hence, we see that a 2 x 6 wall is considered sufficient by most at the present time.
[iii] The proposed changes are approximately on par with the R2000 standard or will meet Energuide 80. This situation is complicated because Energuide now has a new format.
[iv] Currently you can build a minimally insulated glass fortress in even the coldest of climates. As long as you can size the mechanical equipment sufficiently to heat and cool the building during the expected high and low temperature within that region, then you are allowed to build it with the existing legislation. This current lack of regulation takes no account into consideration that this structure will use energy throughout its lifetime. When one drives through any city in Canada and sees the minimally insulated/glass facade high rises, chain stores and box stores that are designed and constructed simply for purposes of brand identity and asthetics, it is this lack of regulation that allows this. Keep in mind that these stores are often architecturally designed for climates such as California, which are much less harsh than those of the Canadian prairies. Thankfully there are many professionals like myself who would like to see this circumstance changed.
[v] I suspect Canada would rank even lower if compared to several of the Nordic countries. “Canada Ranks 2nd-last in Energy Efficiency Study.” CBC News. 16 July 2012. Web. http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2012/07/16/energy-scorecard.html
[vi] One percent of 7,000,000,000 people in the world is 70,000,000. Though there are many people in Russia, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the northern United States and a few other Nordic countries who would experience a similar climate, it is a safe bet that we deal with much colder conditions.