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Step Code Five: Get Ready to Build Net-Zero Homes

Step code 5 is becoming obligatory in most municipalities in the Lower mainland.

Energy efficiency first became a part of the BC Building Code objective back in 2008. Designers’ options to comply with the requirements comprised “prescriptive” and “performance” approaches, the first being a more common choice. The specific requirements for insulation, windows, heaters, lighting, and other equipment and systems focused on individual elements rather than the whole building as a system. Such an approach led to the performance below the projected possibilities. 

In contrast to that, the “performance” approach starts from a goal. It defines the desired overall outcome and establishes a structure to achieve it. Designers and builders can use software modeling and on-site testing to check the design and demonstrate how the constructed building will meet the requirements. Then they can determine which materials or construction methods will bring optimal results. Many green-building certification programs now take this approach.

The five-step code regulation sets performance targets for new construction, grouping them into steps. The so-called Lower Steps are easy to meet, while the Upper Steps require proper knowledge and efforts. As general guidelines, these will apply across various building types and regions of the province. 

The BC Energy Step Code is meant to ensure that new buildings will perform at their best. Still, it leaves builders and homeowners more flexible options to comply with the legislation. It will support innovative and cost-effective solutions, motivating designers to incorporate cutting-edge technologies, following the progress closely. 

Expectations are that the new five-step Code will keep innovative designs, materials, and high-performance systems getting more affordable and available. The higher steps should turn to a minimum requirement by 2032 in the BC Building Code and 2030 in the National Building Code of Canada.

Vancouver architect five step code
Vancouver architect

Benefits of the Five-Step Code

In Vancouver, for instance, step 3 (lower steps) is already the minimum. But a fully efficient, net-zero level home – step 5 – is an excellent idea for a number of reasons. Besides the obvious, like downsizing bills and doing your part for environment protection, net-zero homes come with increased comfort and resale value, to mention just a few. 

Lower energy consumption reduces overall housekeeping costs and even provides protection from future increases in energy prices, up to a level. Better air quality, achieved by using mechanical ventilation and materials with lower amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), means a healthier indoor environment. 

An energy-efficient building envelope improves overall comfort by maintaining steady indoor temperatures with lower variations. It’s supported by the effective use of daylight, which further reduces your electricity bill.

Moreover, reduced energy use significantly lowers greenhouse gas emissions. Increased insulation levels also reduce sound transmission from outside. Combined with passive solar design, it prevents discomforts during power outages, maintaining stable indoor temperature levels.

Last but not least, net-zero homes feature increased resale value. They are also getting sold more quickly than conventional homes.

The Five Steps

  • STEP 1: EnerGuide Rating System, Built Green Bronze: Code requirements promote a learning process. This step makes the industry more familiar with energy modeling and airtightness testing.
  • STEP 2: Built Green Silver – Making improvements to the building systems based on lessons learned from Step 1
  • STEP 3: ENERGY STAR, Built Green Gold, and Platinum. Further improvements, developing better enclosures and potentially smaller mechanical systems
  • STEP 4: R2000 – Construction of high-performance buildings based on lessons learned from the Lower Steps and facilitated by a mature market.
  • STEP 5: Passive House, Net-Zero Energy Ready

The BC Energy Step Code defines a straightforward path to achieving net-zero energy ready buildings. It starts from the basics, the enclosure-first approach, and guides to progress by helping to minimize energy demand through the use of highly efficient mechanical equipment. 

A continuous air barrier should be considered throughout the design process, to eliminate or severely minimize air leakage. As a result, the heating and cooling demands of the space get significantly lower. Designers and builders learn in the process, including feedback from energy modeling and airtightness testing. Steps 1 -3 (lower Steps) should require little to no market transformation. 

As technology availability develops, together with growing demands for better products and more efficient systems, the capacity to improve will also increase. 

Maple ridge modern home designer
Maple ridge modern home designer

How the Five-Step Code Works

The BC Energy Step Code is a series of measurable requirements. Step 1 requires confirmation that new buildings meet the existing energy-efficiency requirements, while step 5 represents a fully energy-efficient home that is net-zero energy ready. A Step 5 home is the most energy-efficient home level achievable today, and it complies with the Passive House standard.

According to the BC Building Code, all buildings belong to the two basic categories – Part 9 and Part 3. Part 9 buildings are three-story or less with a footprint of no more than 600 square meters. This category includes single-family homes, small apartment buildings, duplexes, offices, and industrial shops. For small buildings, lower steps are achievable using construction techniques and products commonly available in today’s market.

Part 3 buildings are complex, four stories and taller, with a footprint of over 600 square meters. Those are condos, larger apartment buildings, office buildings, shopping malls, hospitals, theatres, restaurants, and more.

The regulation is fully performance-based. Therefore, it doesn’t specify the materials and strategies but rather sets measurable execution targets.

The five-step Code recognizes three categories to meet: airtightness, equipment and systems, and building enclosure. The airtightness and building enclosure metrics take the enclosure-first approach, essential for minimizing heating demand. The equipment and systems metrics then define the total energy consumption of the building to establish optimal performance.

Building Envelope

Adding more insulation to walls is easy to design, build, and maintain. While new technologies might be the first thing to come to mind when looking for an energy-efficient home, it’s a good base that will ensure their performance. 

Without excellent insulation and proper enclosure, complex technology systems will not be able to perform as expected, turning more costly to operate and maintain over time. The building envelope is not only the correct path to high energy savings but also to the improvement of overall comfort and reduced noise levels. However, making major changes to the building envelope during a renovation can be difficult and costly. Hence, it’s better and more cost-effective to insulate and make the home airtight during construction.

The minimum levels of insulation are defined by R-values by Code. The minimum effective insulation levels by the BC Building Code are between R-15.8 and R-21.9. The requirements vary based on climate conditions, region, and some accessories. The Vancouver Building Bylaw, for instance, requires R-22 effective insulation since January 1, 2015.

Determining the right amount of insulation for a high-performance house depends on several factors, including the local climate, budget, and elements specific to your building. Some studies show that the optimal range comprises R-0 to R-10 under the slab, R-24 in basement walls, R-30 to R-40 for main walls, and R-60 to R-80 in the roof. Lower values are suitable for warmer coastal climates, and the higher ones apply to colder interiors and northern regions of the province.

north vancouver architects five steps code
north vancouver architects

Airtightness Testing

Airtightness testing of the building as a whole is an absolute necessity in all steps of the BC Energy Step Code. Whole-building airtightness testing utilizes blower door fans to pressurize/depressurize the building. This includes fan airflow and the pressure difference across the enclosure. The results of testing determine the overall building airtightness characteristics. 

Building airtightness is an energy model input, both at the pre-construction stage and after building completion. The steps for airtightness vary regarding the building type and size, as well as the testing standard used. Airtightness testing should be conducted by an Energy Advisor or other qualified contractor.

Mechanical Equipment and Systems

The mechanical equipment and systems have an enormous impact on the building’s energy efficiency, directly impacting overall energy consumption. The required capacity varies with the performance of the enclosure and vice versa. Heating and cooling, ventilation, water-heating systems are all part of the metrics essential for achieving net-zero levels as Step 5 of the Code. 

Backyard renovation or building a new home, financing your construction project

Five-Step Code Is the Future

The BC Energy Step Code is a result of a desire to manage a consistent set of higher-efficiency standards for the building industry. It offers local governments a simple and effective set of guiding standards to meet energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions targets.

Over the coming years, the Province of British Columbia will gradually align the base BC Building Code with the BC Energy Step Code standard, with the goal to make Lower Steps a standard practice for all new construction. 

The Energy Step Code Council encourages local governments by requiring the Upper Steps for any upcoming public-building project. These buildings are meant to serve as high-profile case studies. By referencing one or more steps of the standard, you are doing more for yourself and the community than just accessing co-benefits. It is a contribution to a growing effort to dramatically reduce energy demands across the country. 

By Aryo Falakrou (My Home Designer)

Passive Houses, the Concept for the Future

The best approach to modern housing is the one which saves both your money and energy. One of the ways to get there is to improve your home’s insulation. Energy-efficient design concepts, also known as passive houses or zero-emissions homes, are great for the environment and even better for your pocket.

While it’s well known that better insulation leads to less heat loss, the passive house concept takes that further, straight into the 21st century.

Air temperature flows from warmer to cooler until the difference equalizes. When you try to heat your room, the hot wave eventually reaches all adjacent unheated spaces, sometimes getting even outdoors. It will move through ceilings, walls, and floors, towards any place where the temperature is uneven. During the cooling season, you get the same effect, always the opposite of the one you want to achieve.

Proper insulation must work to decrease this flow by providing effective resistance. Perfect insulation works with the rest of the house to turn the whole process head-to-toe and make the house self-sufficient.

sunshine coast cabin, a passive house
sunshine coast cabin

What Is a Passive House?

The Passive House concept of isolation was established by the Passivhaus Institute in Darmstadt, Germany in 1996, as a pioneering enterprise in building low-energy houses. The guiding idea was to use all common heating influences in a building – like sunshine and various daily life byproducts, as passive sources which can efficiently replace some active systems. When combined with superior insulation values, thermal bridges, and airtightness, such a system makes a significant difference, lowering typical energy consumption for over 90%.

Consistent temperatures and good air quality secure exceptional indoor comfort. Additionally, high levels of insulation reduce both external and internal noise. The vast number of benefits made the passive house concept a leading building standard of today.

Passivhaus Germany governs the global application of the concept, through the Passive House International with a subgroup organization in every country. The Passive House Canada takes care of certification, regulations, and standards for all approved buildings in its territory.

Passive house vancouver
Passive house Vancouver

Requirements for Building a Passive House

If you want a 100% successful project, you need to choose carefully. Every architect or engineer knows how to make a blueprint, but only some of them are familiar with the concept of passive objects. Even fewer know the rules and the ways to apply them.

How to know if your designer is the right one? Start by conversation. Make sure your chosen designer is not only knowledgeable but also ready to go back and forth with you and other associated parties, in order to achieve a satisfactory result.

Your designer must be able to demonstrate his knowledge in the field of passive houses. He or she has to keep all active factors in mind when designing your home, to secure the final result within the framework and PH standards. Besides that, your architect/designer will be the person responsible for coordination with all other consultants, so hiring a real expert is a crucial first step.

Who Else Involves in the Project?

  • Energy Modeler: to help with specific design details
  • Building Envelope Consultant: to oversee the building envelope details and installation
  • Passive House Certifier: to certify the valid Passive Housing process
  • Structure Engineer: to secure stability, take care of thermal bridges and other construction details
  • Survey Engineer: to collect, analyze, and manage the infrastructure details
  • Consultant Engineers: to take care of electrical, mechanical, geotechnical, and other aspects
  • Interior Designer: to adapt the layout in coordination with the concept
  • Contractors and Traders: to supply and execute, they need to be familiar with the requirements of the passive objects
Passive house West Vancouver
Passive House West Vancouver

Unlike conventional methods where contractors are chosen through tenders after the initial project phase, here it is better to have everyone engaged from the start. The design must go through energy modeling to ensure everything will meet the requirements. All the coordination with the city stuff happens within this stage. All the parties involved, including contractors and suppliers, should be informed about the details before finalizing project documentation. It will ensure that everyone knows its exact role, and help to avoid subsequent risks.

Several Phases

The final architectural construction details need adjustment by a knowledgeable structural engineer and revised to avoid any thermal bridges. In this phase, all consultants submit their drawings and calculations to the architect and ensure there’s no conflict. The final draft goes to the certifier for approval, together with all inspection reports. A person in charge of the process of getting building permits is usually the architect.

In order to assemble the proper project documentation file, coordination is essential. Not only will it secure the smooth process of getting a building permit, but also it will help in presenting the tasks to the contractor. If the interior designer, architectural designer, detail designer, and contractors manage to cover every single possible issue, it’s possible to achieve the premium (net-zero house) level of energy efficiency. That means you will receive a self-sufficient object, fully independent of a power grid.

Passive house North Vancouver
Passive House North Vancouver

Building a Passive House

The first meeting on-site happens prior to the beginning of the construction. All parties involved should be present to coordinate work and inspection schedules. After the excavation, the second meeting occurs, so that the builder can present a mock-up of the wall and roof assembly to the traders.

Upon completion of the framing, the architect should inspect the work, check for thermal bridges, and provide alternative solutions for any possible issue that occurred during this phase. Next comes the insulation with a vapor barrier installation, followed by the energy advisor performing a door blow test. Depending on the object size, this phase might stretch through several stages. This is only the first part of the test—the second one is necessary after the installation of drywall, cabinets, dry mirrors, and all finishings. The former one will confirm that all holes and penetrations have been adequately handled to minimize the possibility of leakage or the creation of new thermal bridges.

After that, all remaining tests and inspections are the same as for conventional buildings.

Passive Houses Certification Process

The central certification authority is in Germany. However, Passive House Canada will execute the whole process, and all you have to do is to show up to take over your new, future-proof, and market-friendly structure. You will receive a Certification Plaque to proudly showcase achievement and accomplishment. The plaque is like a gold medal in energy efficiency and environmental conscience. It secures the place for your passive building in the official worldwide register and adds a stamp on its market value.

Burnaby modern designer
Burnaby modern designer

Passive Houses vs Net-Zero Buildings

There are three levels of passive house standards. The first level is Standard or Classic, followed by Plus and topped with a premium, also known as Net-Zero. A Premium Passive House is independent of a power grid and entirely self-sufficient in its energy consumption.

However, not all Net Zero buildings are Passive Houses. It’s possible for a less efficient building to achieve Net Zero level as well. The key feature of a passive house is minimized/neutralized energy loss, followed by minimized energy requirements. A net-zero house is any building with self-sustainable energy production higher than its overall energy loss. 

sunshine coast modern homes
sunshine coast modern homes

Do I Have to Build an Entirely New Construction to Achieve a Passive/Net Zero Home?

Great news: you don’t! There is a program called EnterPHit, created specifically for retrofit projects and refurbishing. Through this program, it’s possible to achieve passive levels even with old objects. However, be ready for a bit more complicated process compared to the new construction. Even though all initial steps and phases are the same, the existing limits could represent obstacles that require additional solutions. All slab and wall insulation will pass through review and upgrade, in order to improve the object’s status. Windows and doors will probably have to be replaced, and any thermal bridges eliminated or at least minimized. You will have to prepare for significant changes in the interior, too.

Passive house burnaby
Passive House Burnaby

Passive Houses Price: Worth the Upfront Cost

The initial investment is, on average, up to 15-20% higher compared to the conventional building. Hiring specialized designers and workers, conducting tests and inspections, and acquiring certifications all come with additional costs. The HRV unit, functional doors, and windows are also more expensive than those commonly used.

However, there’s a different side to every coin. While all construction projects require some upfront investment, not all of them bring back some ROI. The passive house concept is a smart long-term investment which leads to lower energy consumption, less maintenance, and lower global expenses. It doesn’t improve just heating, but cooling and overall comfort, too. Last but not least, the market value of passive objects is projected to grow in the foreseeable future.

In short, the upfront cost will pay-off significantly and actually save you plenty of money in the long run.

Passive houses provide year-round stable indoor air temperature and quality. It doesn’t allow any discomfort during changing seasons. Simple and durable, this concept delivers more than a substantial reduction in energy use and operating costs—it gives you a peace of mind knowing that you do your part to save the environment and build a better world.