Climate Change: How Home Builders and Residents Are Adapting to a Warming World

VANCOUVER — The classically designed, wood-clad two-story family home blends in with its neighbors, but its thick, insulated walls, airtightness, solar panels, heat pump and highly efficient windows make it a house built for a warm world

VANCOUVER — The classically designed, wood-clad two-story family home blends in with its neighbors, but its thick, insulated walls, airtightness, solar panels, heat pump and highly energy-efficient windows make a home built for a warming world.

Home in Vancouver’s Point Gray neighborhood generates more energy than it uses and demonstrates how a highly efficient building is also more resilient to the effects of climate change, such as extreme heat events and smoke from wildfires forest that persisted until this fall in southwestern British Columbia.

The Net Zero certified home was built to standards that exceed any building code in Canada. While they’re changing, Canadian building codes have generally been developed to produce homes for cold climates rather than heat resistance, said Chris Higgins, senior green building designer at the City of Vancouver.

“For so long in Canada, we’ve been focused on trying to stay warm,” Higgins said.

“Now the summers are getting hotter and we have to adapt.”

The Net Zero home and others like it show that some consumers and builders are taking adaptation into their own hands with design and materials suitable for a new climate, with the added benefit of increasing efficiency and reducing costs. energy.

But many existing properties, from single-family homes to condos in towering skyscrapers, will need upgrades to meet the challenge.

A prolonged heat wave that shattered temperature records across British Columbia in June 2021 underscored the importance of climate-resilient housing.

A report from the British Columbia Coroners Service attributed more than 600 deaths that summer to record heat, finding that most people died in homes ill-suited to temperatures that reached 30 degrees and above. away for days without relief.

Standing outside the Net Zero home, builder Paul Lilley explains why wrapping it in insulation, ensuring it has a very high airtightness rating and installing very high doors and windows efficient means the building loses heat more slowly in the winter and takes much longer to absorb heat in the summer than a standard one.

These features also mean that the home’s mechanical requirements for heating, cooling and ventilation are far lower than those of a minimum-code building, said Lilley, director and general manager of Kingdom Builders, which completed the house in 2021.

“As the seasonal ups and downs become more extreme, this home is designed to handle that.”

Several windows are surrounded by deciduous trees and foliage that shed their leaves in the winter, letting in more sunlight, while providing shade in the summer.

“Why build a minimum code house now, and then (it’s) an energy hog in 10 to 20 years?” Lilley added. “Whereas if you build a house like this today, if you plan to sell it in 10 to 20 years, you already have a house that meets future standards.”

The Net Zero house costs about 5% more to build than a minimum-code counterpart, Lilley said, despite not having a basement.

The supply of Canadian-made windows and other components certified to high energy-efficiency standards has improved in recent years, he said, reducing the cost of shipping materials from the more established European market.

Vancouver architect Bryn Davidson has acknowledged that the gap between the cost of building an energy-efficient home and a standard home is narrowing, at least in Vancouver.

“When you look at places around the world that have adopted passive house or other kinds of efficiency standards, after four or five years of doing that, you get to a point where it doesn’t really cost much more than the status quo,” he said.

“And you get a return on investment (with) a more comfortable, sustainable building that also has lower operating costs,” said Davidson, co-founder and design manager at Lanefab, which builds energy-efficient lane homes. as well as larger houses.

The Lanefab team has advocated for the City of Vancouver to change some rules that may contribute to overheating, he said, such as allowing larger exterior overhangs above windows without charging homeowners a penalty for a additional floor area.

While requirements for new buildings in British Columbia lead the country in energy efficiency, the bulk of homes that will exist in the coming decades have already been built, said Vancouver-based architect and consultant Richard Kadulski. , specializing in energy efficiency. residential design and building exteriors.

Many will need upgrades to keep their residents comfortable as global warming worsens.

Glass-walled condo towers jutting out into the Vancouver skyline create a glistening facade, but offer little protection from the sun’s energy during a heat wave.

Kadulski calls this tendency the “glass box syndrome”.

“I see how many people are desperately trying to control their overheating, they put tin foil on the windows,” he said.

Advances in glazing technology have produced windows with a higher level of insulation and lower solar heat gain, Kadulski said, noting that their cost has come down as the domestic market is better equipped to supply them. .

Another option is to add some sort of exterior shading that blocks solar energy from entering a home, a method used in warmer climates around the world, he said.

These measures represent a game-changer for the construction industry, Kadulski noted, describing it as “fragmented” among different designers, developers and builders, many of whom may not yet feel comfortable changing their tried and true methods. .

Likewise, Lilley said efficiency is key to reducing costs, and becoming efficient at constructing a Net Zero-certified building may require additional training and practice.

Some builders won’t even work in Vancouver anymore because of the city’s additional energy efficiency requirements, he added.

“If they’re building somewhere else, they can just keep doing it the same way. They don’t have to retrain or invest in developing new practices.”

Yasmin Abraham, co-founder of social enterprise Kambo Energy Group, stresses that no one should be left behind in the transition to homes that are more energy efficient and resilient to the worsening effects of climate change.

“We won’t achieve our goals unless we include everyone,” said Abraham, whose organization designs and delivers energy education and retrofit programs with Indigenous nations, newcomers and families in low income in British Columbia and Alberta.

The built environment is the third largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, with nearly 80% of those emissions coming from heating.

Canada’s Net-Zero Emissions Accountability Act, signed into law last summer, commits the country to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. This means that the entire economy should produce no emissions or that she should be compensated.

The average Canadian spends about 3% of their income on energy, so anyone who spends twice the average is experiencing energy poverty, she said.

These families tend to live in inefficient homes, so not helping them make upgrades ignores the big potential emissions reductions, Abraham said.

On a smaller, less expensive scale, Abraham recommends that households looking to improve their home’s energy efficiency start by mitigating drafts. She suggests installing door sweeps and caulking all other areas where air enters and exits.

Living in an inefficient home can lead to health problems, with studies linking respiratory and cardiovascular conditions to “thermal discomfort” resulting from the inability to heat and cool your home appropriately, Abraham added.

Unlike the United States, Canada does not have a national strategy to address energy poverty, she said. Some programs offer rebates and financing options to improve energy efficiency, including a qualified income program in British Columbia, but it’s a patchwork across the country, so federal support would be essential to expand the access, she said.

This year’s federal budget allocated $150 million to develop a national green building strategy for new and existing buildings to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and increase resilience to the effects of climate change. climate change.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on November 6, 2022.

Brenna Owen, The Canadian Press

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