Technical and policy specialists who provide unpaid guidance on energy and water conservation requirements in the Ontario Building Code have caught the attention of government cost-cutters. The newly released 2019 Ontario budget lists the Building Code Conservation Advisory Council (BCCAC) among 10 provincial agencies deemed to be unnecessary or imprudent expenditures.
The budget document lumps the 10 agencies with two that have already been dismantled — including GreenON, the entity that oversaw disbursement of funds from the cancelled cap-and-trade program — and projects collective savings of more than $125 million over five years from their dissolution. Meanwhile, as mandated, BCCAC members’ claimed expenses are posted on the Ontario government’s website and reveal peak spending of $1,345 to cover travel costs in 2015, dropping to $1,136 in 2016.
“The Building and Development branch (of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing) provides us with coffee and lunch,” adds the council’s vice chair, Bob Bach, an engineer who has been a gratis consultant on the intricate nuances of energy performance in buildings for the past nine years.
Although the cost-effectiveness of that free advice is now under scrutiny, the Made-In-Ontario Environment Plan, released in November 2018, reflects admiringly on the Building Code and identifies it as an action area for introducing measures that could reduce both greenhouse gas emissions and electricity and natural gas costs for building owners.
“Ontario is currently a leading jurisdiction in Canada when it comes to energy efficiency standards in the Building Code,” the Environment Plan states. “Today, Ontario’s Building Code ensures new homes built after 2017 use 50 per cent less energy to heat and cool than houses built before 2005, resulting in a much lower carbon footprint than older homes.”
Resource to back complex energy efficiency regulations
That’s no accident since successive iterations of the code have set increasingly stringent performance benchmarks along with scheduled dates for incremental improvements. Most recently, buildings designed and constructed after January 1, 2017 must be at least 13 per cent more energy-efficient than previously required.
Expectations are stated in Section 12 of the code, relating to “resource conservation and environmental integrity in design and construction of buildings”, but two Supplementary Standards — SB-10 for Part 3 buildings or SB-12 for Part 9 low-rise housing — outline the approaches building designers can take to comply. This is where the BCCAC’s unpaid building code advisors have made key contributions.
Beyond evaluating the costs and paybacks of technically feasible energy performance, they’ve considered how designers and modellers can test and verify designs, and how building officials will assess designs and enforce code requirements. They’ve also tackled a range of emerging issues during their regular meetings — recently, for example, related to electric vehicle charging stations in multifamily buildings.
“The bottom line is that energy efficiency regulations are very complex,” observes Bach, who was approached to be a founding member of the advisory council in part due to his 1990s’ era professional involvement when the ASHRAE 90.1, Energy Standard for Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings, was first introduced as a reference in the Ontario Building Code. “We have a diverse group of people on the council, and our role has been to advise the Minister on energy efficiency and water conservation in the Building Code.”
That’s premised on the Minister’s willingness to listen.
“I am worried that the dismantling of the Building Code Conservation Advisory Council is a step towards abandoning the progress Ontario has made on our Building Code,” says Mark Lucuik, a LEED Fellow, who is a principal and the director of sustainability with the engineering consulting firm, Morrison Hershfield. “I have encouraged the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to consider these changes holistically in order to make informed choices that are in the best interest of Ontario residents.”
Axe aligned with fiscal review
The recommendation to dissolve the BCCAC comes from the five-member Agency Review Task Force, composed of five Conservative Members of Provincial Parliament, and is affiliated with the government’s promised line-by-line review of provincial spending to promote transparency and uncover opportunities for cost savings. The budget’s hit list is drawn from 60 entities reviewed thus far, while another 130 are yet to be examined.
The task force has recommended axing 10 agencies deemed to “have become unnecessary, or because there are more cost-effective ways of achieving those goals”. To that end, the budget states: “The Ministry could seek expert advice on conservation matters of the Building Code from working groups rather than through a provincial agency.”
Yet, the working definition of an advisory agency, posted on the government of Ontario’s website, does not seem unduly odious. “Advisory agencies are composed of one or more individuals appointed by the government. These provincial agencies are established for more than three years. Advisory agencies’ administrative functions are carried out by the responsible ministry,” it states.
The 12-member BCCAC has fulfilled a different function than other advisory committees struck to support Building Code development. However, some of the BCCAC members, including Bach, have also served on other kinds of code-related committees in Ontario and for Canada’s model national codes.
“There is a process for reviewing proposed changes in the building code, in general, for which they convene Technical Advisory Committees. That occurs every five years when they are preparing for the next Building Code, but they don’t look at the supplementary standards, which is really where energy and water conservation is dealt with,” Bach explains. “Technical Advisory Committees are the resource for new building code proposals. We’re actually upstream from that and we are only focused on energy and water efficiency.”
The cost-effectiveness of continuing to develop an Ontario code parallel to the National building and energy codes is not addressed in the budget. As highlighted in the Made-In-Ontario Environment Plan, Ontario’s code has traditionally enforced some different and sometimes more stringent requirements than the national code. BCCAC member David Potter, chief building official for the town of Newmarket, points to energy efficiency and accessibility as two of the most prominent divergences.
However, national code developers have now tackled the ambitious multi-year task of revising the national codes to respond to climate change. “The national code is catching up to the province,” Potter says.
One week after the Ontario budget’s release, at least three BCCAC members report they have received no official notification from the Ontario government of any change in the council’s status. Nor could the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing provide an estimate of the portion of the projected $125 million in savings that is attributable to the BCCAC’s dissolution.
Barbara Carss is editor-in-chief of Canadian Property Management.