Opinion - Brian Gifford & Shaun Clark: Wasteful construction practices must go

Originally published in the Chronicle Herald on Oct. 15, 2022.

Nova Scotia needs to stop wasting energy in buildings. Energy waste leads to higher energy costs for residents and higher greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).

At least seven N.S. municipalities have declared a climate emergency and the Nova Scotia government has adopted a law setting ambitious climate goals.  Buildings account for about 42 per cent of Nova Scotia’s GHGs, including oil, gas and electricity use.  Nova Scotia also has one of the highest rates of energy poverty in the country due to our reliance on fossil fuels for electricity and heating — made much worse with the dramatic recent increases in the costs of heating oil.  

So, what’s the solution?

One important step is that we must adopt much more advanced building codes and make sure the construction industry and inspectors are well-trained to implement them.   

New buildings and major retrofits need to be built to much higher energy efficiency standards. We need to go beyond demonstration projects and counting on progressive builders and incentives from Efficiency Nova Scotia (ENS) alone. 

In the Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act, the provincial government committed to releasing by December the “Climate Change Plan for Clean Growth” that is to detail how Nova Scotia will achieve its emission-reduction targets. We need to commit to much higher building efficiency standards in the long-promised climate plan and we must adopt new national model building codes as soon as they are available.  

We’re in the midst of a boom in building new homes and there is a long overdue focus on making more of them affordable for lower-income households. Highly efficient homes are more affordable homes for all households, but especially for those on low incomes. 

Adsum House’s new development, built to passive house standards, will save 80 per cent on energy costs compared with standard construction. Higher efficiency more than pays for itself in reduced heating-equipment costs and dramatically reduced energy use. Efficient buildings are also more comfortable and healthier to live in.

We know how to make buildings much more efficient. Every year, Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) teaches its carpentry students about energy-efficiency principles. Efficiency Nova Scotia provides workshops and seminars through its Preferred Partner Network. Every new building and every major retrofit that doesn’t meet the highest possible standards is a lost opportunity. It will lead to higher energy costs for residents for decades and may require expensive upgrades later. In this time of dramatic climate change, it makes no sense not to do it right during new construction or renovation.     

The Model National Energy Code for Buildings (NECB) is updated every five years. The 2020 NECB was delayed by the pandemic. It’ll be published soon. It’ll propose a “step-code” with five tiers of energy efficiency, allowing provinces and municipalities to be ambitious immediately or at their own pace. Such a system was pioneered in British Columbia, and having a national model building code of this type will be a big improvement.    

Nova Scotia should commit to rapidly adopting the NECB and other related measures in its upcoming climate plan. We must:  

  1. Adopt the top three levels of the new step code and require all new homes to meet the top standard in the new code after January 2026.   
  1. Commit to the national goal for all new buildings being net-zero energy by 2030.  
  1. Require air tightness testing during construction. 
  1. Require zero carbon or electric heating and hot water systems and electric vehicle charging outlets in all new buildings.   
  1. Require all buildings to have energy labelling and all new buildings to have a carbon budget, including embodied carbon.   
  1. Create and implement a training program for builders and inspectors. A net-zero building code acceleration fund and ENS can help.  

A typical building loses heat through its large windows and its concrete balconies that act like radiator fins that help building heat escape out into the wider world. How is this legal in 2022 when we know how to build buildings that are so much more energy efficient? It’s much harder to make a building energy efficient after it is built. 

We’re now building hundreds of buildings that will have to be retrofitted in the coming decades. Building to the highest possible efficiency standards will save money on future retrofits and will also save occupants on their annual energy bills.   

Adopting the NECB and other measures will help the Nova Scotia government meet its climate change goals while making housing more affordable. It will help ensure an inclusive transition to an energy future that is affordable for all income levels. Buildings also have a role in developing electric vehicle infrastructure and greening the electricity grid. These steps must be in climate plan for Nova Scotia.

Brian Gifford and Shaun Clark are members of the Ecology Action Centre's Energy Action Team (EAT). EAT is a volunteer group that advocates for climate action in the energy sector.

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