An unusual mix of speakers showed up to Vancouver City Council earlier this month to argue in favour of Vancouver’s higher environmental standards for new houses – guidelines that city staff had suggested delaying for a year to help relieve a heavily bogged-down permitting system.
Architects, engineers, builders and manufacturers of windows and heat pumps joined climate advocates, professors and young activists to argue it was important that Vancouver not back down in any way from the new “zero-emission” standards due to kick in on Jan. 1, 2022. Vancouver City Council eventually voted 6-4 not to extend the deadline and follow the initial timeline set out in the city’s Climate Emergency Action Plan.
The new standards will require electric space and water heating instead of natural gas, more energy-efficient windows and roofs, and other measures in all forms of housing, including single-family homes, duplexes, townhouses and laneways. The requirements are being brought in years ahead of a provincial initiative that will require similar measures by 2032.
In a sign of how the debate is changing as it plays out in many cities and provinces over the next few years, representatives from the construction industry said many manufacturers, suppliers and builders are ready to move ahead with the new rules, while a delay would only favour those who have dragged their feet.
“The gas industry and furnace manufacturers have had 30 years to adapt. They just want more time for advertising,” said John Foster, an engineer who said his own job is tied to natural gas. He emphasized that less expensive forms of housing in Vancouver, such as townhouses and duplexes, are already being built with all-electric space and water heating because it’s more cost-effective.
“It’s not from a green consciousness of the developer,” he said. “It’s just cheaper.”
Kyle Cartwright, technical manager at Chilliwack-based window manufacturer Westeck Windows & Doors, pointed out that companies like his have invested heavily in the past year to meet the new standards.
“We’re in for hundreds of thousands of dollars for designing three new product lines, and hundreds of thousands in inventory,” Mr. Cartwright said.
He said he could have been stuck with that inventory if city council had agreed to the deadline extension.
An extension, which would have been the second such delay Vancouver had granted on the new building rules since its climate-emergency response plan was approved in November, 2019, would have rewarded companies that had failed to prepare and not made the same kinds of investment, Mr. Cartwright said.
That kind of argument, along with those from many other advocates urging council not to give up Vancouver’s leadership position on the issue, ultimately tipped council into opposing the staff recommendation for a delay. Mayor Kennedy Stewart originally supported a deadline extension, but switched his vote, noting he came to see postponing the new standards would send a bad signal.
“I think saying we would step back from zero-emission hit hard,” he said.
The two-day council meeting heard from some builders, manufacturing companies and industry associations, arguing in favour of pushing the new standards to Jan. 1, 2023, pointing out there will be more and better electric-heating products available by then. The argument has been made successfully in the past as governments have tiptoed toward imposing such requirements.
David Hughes, an adviser with the Canadian Institute of Plumbing & Heating, said supply chains have been disrupted by the pandemic, resulting in delays and massive price increases. As well, international producers have been stalled in getting Canadian approvals for their equipment.
“We have had products stalled 18 months in certification processes,” Mr. Hughes said.
Other builders echoed his concerns over pandemic stresses on the industry.
“We know we’re having lots of trouble getting components in. In 12 months, we will have a broader range of materials,” said Jake Fry, founder of Vancouver builder Smallworks, which has built hundreds of laneway houses in Vancouver.
Some industry representatives said an extension would mean that Vancouver staff will have more time to get training in assessing and regulating those new systems, which are much more advanced than old electric baseboard heaters and now can include sophisticated computerized heat pumps.
But Vancouver planners who work on sustainability issues say they’re convinced that moving to the new requirements is entirely feasible – and not even that groundbreaking.
“West Vancouver led first – it launched a similar requirement,” said Chris Higgins, a senior green-building planner at Vancouver City Hall.
The City of North Vancouver also has some similar requirements, a result of the province allowing municipalities to move ahead on certain aspects of its Energy Step Code changes in its own 10-year plan for getting to zero-emission building standards.
Some of the upgraded requirements for windows and air exchangers just bring the city up to national Energy Star standards.
Vancouver hasn’t even gone as far as some California communities, because its new building standards will still allow natural gas for cooktops, barbecues and fireplaces – something that Stand.earth SAFE Cities campaign director Logan McIntosh noted puts Vancouver a bit behind.
“Other communities are being more ambitious,” she said in an interview. Ms. McIntosh was one of many who came to council to express support for keeping the city’s new standards at the original start date.
Mr. Higgins, the city planner, said the city had acknowledged those permitted items are in a different category from water heaters and furnaces.
“There’s emotion behind gas cooktops and fireplaces – there’s not the same emotion around heating.”
Mr. Higgins and the city’s sustainability team say requiring electric heating will make a huge difference in the city’s carbon emissions, reducing the average output from a single-family house by 86 per cent. In Vancouver, carbon emissions from all buildings, commercial and residential accounts for just over half of all emissions in the city.
Vancouver’s new rules will mainly affect new single-family houses.
That’s because about 95 per cent of new townhouses – about 600 each year in the city – and about 92 per cent of Vancouver’s roughly 400 laneway houses are already built with electric heating systems rather than natural gas, Mr. Higgins said.
“Single-family houses tend to be the most expensive housing we have and the most greenhouse-gas-producing,” he said, adding that about 95 per cent of the 400 new single-family homes built each year still use gas heating.
The city imposed higher environmental standards for multi-family and commercial buildings as of June 1, but those didn’t generate attention because there was no discussion about delaying them. Many developers have already been meeting those standards for years in order to get rezoning approvals.
Like some of those who spoke to council on the issue, Mr. Higgins is convinced that the building industry is ready to meet new standards because the demand is there, and environmental building is no longer a niche activity.
Two years ago, his department surveyed window manufacturers and manufacturers who make electric-heat equipment to make sure they could meet the demand for greener options. He said he was encouraged by what he saw then – and what he is seeing now.
“One thing in a capitalist economy that’s very good is responding to demand,” Mr. Higgins said. “I’m heart-warmed by the response from industry.”
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