Canadian Contractor

Leading Edge: Spare a little change?


August 9, 2021
By Casey Edge

Occasionally, I hear from government officials and consultants complaining about how builders are unwilling to change. The complaint often arises when builders express concern about jumping into new regulations lacking research diligence such as fast-tracking net zero housing in B.C.’s Step Code.

B.C. Step Code is actually a Leap Code, where several Vancouver region municipalities plan to launch into Net Zero Step 5 this year – about 11 years earlier than the government’s target of 2032.

In light of past energy-efficiency debacles such as leaky condo, asbestos insulation and urea formaldehyde, it’s understandable that responsible builders want to prioritize health and safety first and minimize any unintended consequences.

Municipalities leaping into Step 5 open the door to issues such as higher radon levels, especially where there is often no requirement for radon rough-in mitigation. High radon levels are site-specific. Relying on B.C.’s radon map is a recipe for disaster.

Advertisement

The Canadian Association of Radon Scientists and Technicians (CARST) offered presentations at their recent conference, offering the following observations. Canada has the third highest radon levels in the world. Radon is Canada’s second-highest cause of lung cancer. Increasing airtightness can elevate radon by 56.6 percent. Tests in the Vancouver region reveal over 600 bq, Canada’s maximum is 200 bq. First-time home buyers (that is, between ages 24 and 44) have limited financial resources that preclude buying or renting in more established neighbourhoods with less energy-efficient homes. They tend to buy in more affordable areas with modern home designs that are also energy efficient. Younger Canadians are being disproportionately exposed to higher radon and projections paint an alarming picture of rising exposure, along with younger ages of radon-induced lung cancer.Clearly, caution is warranted, which
is why the National Building Code is reviewing radon and other potential unintended consequences of very energy-efficient homes.

The B.C. government circumvented this review, enabling municipalities to leap into any level of energy efficiency several years ago. In doing so, the B.C. government also ignored their agreement to harmonize the B.C. Building Code with the National Building Code, abandoning this health and safety diligence fundamentally important to building codes.

The point is not to oppose energy efficiency, but to ensure any change to the building code is done responsibly with the primary goal of health and safety and consumer protection.

Which brings us to the original complaint of builders allegedly unwilling to change. Ironically, it is the government that has a history of unwillingness to change. Governments are always fast and ready to impose new regulations on builders and change their business model. But when it comes to their own organizations, governments refuse to make changes that would significantly boost housing affordability and create more skilled trades – both alleged goals.

For example, provincial governments have the power to require municipalities to re-zone for higher density and make development approvals more efficient. Provinces have the power to refuse triple-digit increases to municipal development cost charges. They have the power to rein in permit fees, often charged erroneously on the cost of construction rather than a fee for service. Rising prices for materials and labour enable some municipalities to accumulate big surpluses for inspections while their new housing starts actually decline. Yet, provincial governments usually decline to take municipalities to task citing the importance of municipal self-determination. In other words, they are unwilling to change a failed governance structure driving up housing prices.

The CD Howe Institute’s most recent study, called “Gimme shelter: How high municipal housing charges and taxes decrease housing supply,” says “Vancouver’s housing regulation costs are by far the largest in Canada, resulting in an extra cost of $644,000 for the average new house. Elsewhere in Canada – Vancouver, Abbotsford, Victoria, Kelowna, Regina, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa-Gatineau – home buyers paid an average $230,000 extra on a new house because of limits on supply.”

Change is also lacking in the government-funded, education system which continues to operate in silos. To address the extreme shortage of skilled trades, provinces could instruct universities to accept skilled trades, such as carpentry, as electives for degrees in arts and sciences. These electives would offer a more well-rounded education and provide employable skills during the summer and immediately after graduation. Some students might even choose to pursue construction as a career, after their initial introduction to skills training.

Yet that would again change the existing dysfunctional governance model. So, before government regulators and their supporters jump on their favourite hobby horse of criticizing builders for reluctance to change, they should first look in the mirror.