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Vancouver moves to Zero Emissions Buildings

The plan will eliminate emissions from new buildings by 2030
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
by Sean Pander

In July 2016, Vancouver City Council approved the Zero Emissions Building Plan (the Plan) and in doing so has shifted the emphasis of building policy and regulation for new construction in the city away from energy efficiency in general towards operational greenhouse gas reduction specifically. The Plan includes four main strategies to transition all new construction in the city to zero operational greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

This may appear as an audacious goal but Vancouver is well positioned to take a leadership role in transitioning North American design and construction practices towards new buildings that emit virtually no carbon pollution. Currently 98 per cent of electrical power used in British Columbia is supplied by renewable sources such as hydro, micro hydro, wind and biomass. In addition, Vancouver’s mild climate means that the need for heating and cooling are lower than most other North American jurisdictions. The challenge in Vancouver is making this transition in such a way so as to maximize local economic development without negatively impacting housing affordability.

1. Stepped Limits for Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Heat Loss
The first strategy in the Plan calls for the establishment of limits for GHG emissions and heat loss (per m2) for major building typologies. These limits will be stepped down between 2017 and 2030 through periodic amendments to Vancouver’s Rezoning Policy for Green Buildings and its building bylaw. The Plan includes interim targets to reduce emissions from new buildings by 70 per cent by 2020 and 90 per cent by 2025 as compared to the 2007 baseline.

The Plan primarily focuses on residential construction as it represents 82 per cent of new development in Vancouver by building area. Residential building owners typically lack the expertise required to ensure that complex mechanical systems have been properly commissioned and maintained. As a result, the Plan emphasizes two main approaches to ensure GHG reductions are reliably achieved and sustained in new construction. New buildings will be required to either minimize building envelope and ventilation system heat loss or will be required to connect to a district energy system that uses primarily renewable energy while making more modest improvements in building efficiency.

2. Public Sector Leadership
Industry consultation and global best practice research indicated that regulatory approaches alone would not be successful. The rapid evolution of local design expertise, the supply of cost competitive high performing building components, and changes to common construction practice require that we start building zero emission buildings in a wide range of contexts immediately.

As a result, the second strategy is to require all new city-owned and Vancouver Affordable Housing Agency buildings to achieve as close to zero emissions as feasible. Given the Plan’s emphasis on reducing envelope and ventilation heat loss, new city buildings will seek to achieve Passive House certification, the leading global standard specifically developed to meet these objectives.

3. Private Sector Incentives
The third strategy is to provide incentives to leading developers and builders who demonstrate cost effective approaches to achieving zero emissions for new construction. In adopting the Plan, council committed an initial $1.6 million for incentives for voluntary leadership in building zero emissions new homes and townhouses. Staff are exploring additional tools and resources to catalyze zero emissions leadership in multi-unit residential buildings, potentially using approaches such as expedited permitting, permit fee or property tax discounts, etc.

4. Capacity Building
The fourth and final strategy in the Plan is to invest in design, construction, and permitting capacity building. Early private and public sector leaders will be encouraged to share their insights about successful approaches and barriers encountered. Incentives will be connected to the development of design and post-occupancy case studies as well as the presentation of lessons learned to industry peers. Towards this end, council has committed an initial $700,000 towards the establishment of a non-governmental Zero Emissions Building Centre of Excellence to facilitate dialogue and access to expertise and training to serve not only Vancouver but the entire region.

As an early capacity building action, permitting and building inspection staff are being provided with training in high performance building envelope design and construction approaches and the Passive House standard. In addition, city policies have been updated to allow floor space exemptions for increased wall thickness and roof height to accommodate the higher levels of insulation required.

The First Step
Draft policy and regulatory changes reflecting the first step in the limits on GHG emissions and heat loss for multi-unit residential buildings as called for in the Plan have been developed. Anticipated design responses to the changes include a reduction in exposed concrete and other thermal bridges, simplification of heating systems, and the use of direct ventilation and heat recovery ventilators.

Staff are currently consulting with impacted stakeholders for input. Recommendations to City Council on these changes will be made in late 2016 or early 2017 but no significant new requirements for detached houses are anticipated prior to 2020 as the efficiency requirements for this building type were improved significantly in the 2014 building bylaw.

The proposed new requirements will provide for improved alignment between similar building types, seek to streamline requirements to focus on priority outcomes, provide developers with flexibility in achieving the limits, and simplify administrative requirements. The changes are not anticipated to materially impact construction or operating costs, but will reduce GHG emissions by more than 50 per cent for multi-unit residential buildings. In addition, the changes are expected to lead to improved indoor air quality and comfort while simplifying building operations and maintenance.

Sean Pander, the City of Vancouver’s green building manager, leads the city’s development of policies and industry partnerships to transform how new buildings are developed to reduce their carbon footprint while maximizing their functionality, health, and comfort.

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