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Pace and scale of Ontario building code revamp causing some concern

Some in the construction industry are worried updates will increase costs, while environmental advocates say the province isn’t going far enough on energy efficiency requirements
North Bay home construction (2012)
A home in North Bay gets a revamp of its own

Ontario’s building code is going through a long, arduous update process and the latest phase of consultations was recently posted to the provincial regulatory registry

Building codes are a rather arcane subject but have a big effect on pressing policy areas like housing and climate change. The Housing Affordability Task Force report recommended several changes to Ontario’s building codes to help speed up construction. 

The current consultation is technically not a provincial effort, but a federal one. The province is, however, directing stakeholders to engage in the national consultation to help speed up the process when it comes time to align the provincial code with the federal one. 

Building and construction codes are updated on a regular basis — usually every five years — but a somewhat recent policy change added a new wrinkle to the process. 

In Ontario, the building code encompasses everything from construction, to building safety to plumbing. At the national level, the individual codes are housed in separate books, but deal with the same topics. 

As part of the federal government’s major climate change strategy, the Pan-Canadian Framework on Clean Growth and Climate Change — initially proposed in 2017 but fully adopted in 2019 — Ottawa wants to make sure buildings are more energy efficient. The goal is to have a net-zero ready building code by 2030. The code will get progressively more stringent up to 2030. 

Buildings contribute quite a lot to Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions. In 2020, the building sector was the third largest emitter by sector, behind only oil and gas and transportation. 

Construction and building regulation, however, is within provincial jurisdiction. 

To help get to net-zero, Ottawa signed a reconciliation agreement with all the provinces and territories to harmonize the patchwork of codes. Since the agreement, Ottawa and the provinces have been slowly marching towards a more consistent code. 

About 60 per cent of Ontario’s code aligns with the national code, according to the Environmental Registry posting on the topic. By 2030, it’ll have to be fully aligned, the agreement stipulates. 

Some industry players and watchers are fans of the effort, while others are concerned it’ll further complicate building in a province and country facing severe housing shortages. 

“The pace and depth of the changes leading up to 2030 will impose unprecedented challenges on industry,” said Paul De Berardis, director of building science at the Residential Construction Council of Ontario. 

“During a housing affordability and supply crisis, these technical changes will not make the delivery of new housing cheaper, simpler, or faster,” he added. 

Before the reconciliation agreement, Ontario had free reign over its code. 

To add a little complexity, some municipalities also have green building standards enforced through the planning process that are different from energy efficiency dictums in the provincial and federal codes.

Getting provincial codes in line with one another is also an economic boon, estimated to contribute between $750 million and $1 billion to the Canadian economy by 2028 through eliminating different rules across jurisdictions, according to the reconciliation agreement. 

The latest model national code was supposed to come out in 2020, but got delayed to March 2022, partly because of the big harmonization effort. When the model code came out, it started a 24-month process in Ontario. By March 2024, the province will have to further align its code with the national one.

For Efficiency Canada’s Kevin Lockart, who heads up the buildings unit at the Carleton University-based think tank, the tight timeline between partial adoption in 2024 and full adoption in 2030 presents some concerns around efficiency and costs.

The model code includes five efficiency tiers, with the highest tier being net-zero. 

“The goal of tiered codes is to raise the floor of building energy performance while also establishing a clear and predictable path towards national (net-zero) construction standards,” he said.

He’s not pleased with what he’s seen from the Ontario government around adopting those tiers. 

Currently, the provincial and federal efficiency standards are roughly in line with one another. But as the 2024 adoption deadline with stricter standards comes up the province appears to be taking a slightly different path that largely maintains the status quo, he said. 

That means the province will “have to implement a series of rapid and steep increases in building energy requirements to hit a net-zero compatible standard by 2030. Industry and building owners will be forced to contend with unnecessary complexity and costs in the coming decade,” he said.

By 2030, provincial codes will have to be fully aligned with the national code. 

During the next round of consultations for the 2025 model national code, provinces will only have 18 months to harmonize, according to the agreement.  

But because codes come out roughly every five years, the process for consulting on the 2025 code started even though the 2020 process was so delayed. It’s also not yet clear whether the 2020 delay will affect the 2030 net-zero timeline. 

A previous round of consultations focused on reducing “technical variations with the 2015'' national code. 

“The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH) began phase one of a three-phase consultation process in fall of 2021 to gather input on proposed changes for the next edition of Ontario’s Building Code. Phase two was held in winter 2022 and the third and final phase of consultations concluded in fall 2022,” the ministry said in an email. 

“MMAH has been focused on reviewing feedback collected through all three phases of consultation,” the ministry added. 

The regulatory registry posting doesn’t direct would-be commenters to an Ontario-specific site. Instead, it sends them to the national code consultations. 

The idea behind directing stakeholders to the national code consultation website for the 2025 code is to help speed up the process when the 18 month implementation period comes up, De Berardis said, because it’s difficult to do a province-wide consultation with so many industry players in 18 months. 

That’s also backed up by what the registry says. 

“It is critical that Ontario's industry partners participate in these national consultations as they are Ontario's principal mechanism for consultation on Ontario's 2026/2027 building code,” the registry states. 

“This approach of concordant public review would also help the construction sector to have a preview of potential changes that may get included in Ontario's building code years later allowing the sector the necessary preparatory time for future changes.”

The current consultation, which runs until April 27, is the second of seven consultation periods, according to the regulatory posting. 

This round focuses on nine topics, including mass timber construction, drainage systems, fire safety, and more. 

Once the 2025 national code is released, it’ll inform Ontario’s next building code. The ministry isn’t sure when either will come out, hence why they’re tentatively calling it the 2026/27 code on the registry.

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