Canadian Contractor

Macenzie Rebelo   

Contractors feel the pressure, as the push for net-zero gets tough

Canadian Contractor Smart House going green Net Zero passive house sustainability

Green eco house in empty field concept for construction and real estate

(Getty Images)

By 2030 the Canadian government intends to reduce emissions by 40 per cent and be net-zero by 2050. The ambitious goal is a part of the 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, which is Canada’s guide to reducing greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). With only six years left for Canada to meet its goal, many residential contractors are feeling the pressure to catch up with commercial developers. All the while, industry experts are urging contractors to make better progress.

While at the 2024 Canada Green Building Council (CAGBC) Building Lasting Change (BLC) conference in Toronto, Ont., representatives from Ledcor, EllisDon, Multiplex and CGBC address concerns of GHG emissions, sustainability and how the industry must adapt – the overall consensus was contractors and home builders are not doing their part. 

“There really needs to be a lot more done in terms of tracking and understanding the impact of the construction emissions, because generally it’s very much underestimated,” says Multiplex senior sustainability manager, Anya Barkan. “Residential has been the slowest to adapt.”

According to CAGBC, residential, commercial and institutional buildings contribute 17 per cent of Canada’s GHG emissions. When including building materials and construction, the number is closer to 30 per cent, making the building sector Canada’s third highest carbon emitter.

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“The construction industry uses more physical materials than any other,” says Ben Polley, co-founder of Evolve Builders Group Inc. “Paradoxically this positions all of us well to have an outsized global positive impact, if we change how we build. But, it so means that there are multiple means and methods by which constructors can apply themselves.” 

Polley, based in Guelph, considers one of the reasons why contractors and homebuilders may be moving at a slower pace compared to developers is due to a lack of “visibility to the vast positive potential.” Polley also suspects the upcoming 2024 building codes will drive a lot more net-zero construction and follow suit of British Columbia’s Energy Step Code

Terry Adamson, technical director of Fenestration Canada echoes Polley’s sentiment. “With the national building code, it is going to be at passive house performance,” says Adamson, who expects the code will require windows and glass to be triple-glazed, buildings to be airtight and with double studs. Adamson, from Cowichan Bay, B.C., has concerns as to whether, realistically, all of Canada’s buildings will be net-zero-ready by 2030. “It’s not that far away,” he says. “If you look around at the country, they’re years away from performance building compared to Ontario or B.C.” Adamson suggests a driving factor for this slow growth is that “a lot of builders are happy to build what they’ve built forever because it sells.” 

Buyers are also a factor as to why some residential builders may not pursue building sustainability, explains Marc Esposito founder and construction manager of Guelph-based Otis Interiors. “A lot of consumers are initially interested in a passive house, but then see the cost and forgo it,” says Esposito. “There’s a common thought process that contractors don’t want to do it and that’s not the case. It’s just not affordable on either end.” 

However, Adamson argues that in the long run, that is not entirely true. “Yes, they’re going to be more money upfront. But you’re gonna save significantly on your cost to run that home, especially with heating and hot water.”

Adamson, suggests that if home buyers were made more aware of this, there would be less of a challenge selling. It is a common misconception that building green is significantly more expensive than it is, says Cambridge-based professional engineer Gord Cooke. He also explains that it is a myth customers will have to sacrifice comfort when purchasing a passive-home. “It’s healthier, safer, more comfortable and durable,” says Cooke. “There is no reason to compromise and if you did, you did it wrong.” 

Adamson points out that the lack of regulation of building codes is also at play. “You can be in one city, where the enforcement is really strong and be in another where there is none at all. It is a huge factor in getting the industry to move forward,” he says. “Especially when nobody is watching.” According to Adamson, B.C. has some of the best enforcement of building codes next to Ontario, but the rest of the country has to catch up.

“I just don’t think they [contractors] have the time to learn and train,” says Cooke. “But, the evidence has shown that once they take training they do it. They want to do the right thing.” If net-zero-ready classes were accessible or required, more contractors would build green today, suggests Cooke. “A lot of these guys did their training 20 years ago and haven’t been back to the classroom since.”

Although the times have changed, Polley does recognize that business is hard for many contractors. “It is hard to argue with success,” he says. “If what you’re doing is working for you financially, there is no push factor to do something else.” 

According to the Canadian Home Builders Association (CHBA), net-zero homes improve comfort, increase energy performance, lower utility bills and promote healthier living through extra insulation, better windows and more advanced mechanical/ventilation systems. However, at a higher upfront cost – the investment spreads out over the lifespan of the mortgage, which for some home buyers is not worth the inital cost. 

“The key is how long people stay in their homes,” says Adamson. “If you only plan on staying in a home for 5 years, you’re not going to make your money back. Some people say it takes at least 25 years.” 

To Esposito, the entire construction industry is inherently wasteful, whether it’s tearing down a 15-year-old bathroom to renovate or building a condo building from scratch. But, the key difference in a commercial or developer space compared to residential is the return on investment (ROI), which is for the environment, is immediate, says Esposito. “We don’t have home builders doing it on a mass scale yet and when people want their homes renovated, they want them done the way they were built.”

If a contractor suggests a net-zero renovation or build, ultimately it is up to the customer whether or not they are sold – and as Polley puts it, “Nobody wants to spend more money than they need to.” 

As Esposito mentions, it is not that contractors are unwilling to build net-zero homes, but rather an issue of cost and if the incentive to buy green homes is low so is the return. “It is an affordability issue,” agrees Polley. 

Over the next six years, Adamson expects there will be a scramble across the country for home builders to meet the government’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan standards. Although, despite this, it is clear everyone is hopeful a net-zero future will be possible by 2050 and that Canada will see progress.

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