Illustration: Paige Pennifold

Alberta adopts new codes to improve energy efficiency in buildings

Regulatory changes are never easy, but setting out minimum energy-efficiency standards for building construction codes was long overdue in Alberta. The provincial government reports that emissions from Alberta’s houses and buildings produced 19 megatonnes, or roughly seven per cent, of the province’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2014. Decreasing building emissions will play a vital part in reducing Alberta’s overall carbon footprint.

There may be a steep learning curve for some adjusting to the new rules, but industry insiders argue the new energy codes reward intelligent design and construction and will ultimately result in greener, better-designed buildings that will be more affordable to operate.

As part of a provincial greenhouse gas emission–reduction strategy, the government has adopted the National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings (NECB) 2011 for commercial, industrial and high-rise construction as well as added energy-efficiency requirements to section 9.36 of the Alberta Building Code (ABC) 2014, covering houses and small buildings. Enforced on a municipal level, the codes set a minimum construction standard for all permits applied for after Nov. 1, 2016.

The NECB was written after an extensive consultation process that was open to stakeholders from the construction industry, all levels of government and the general public. Developed by the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes, with technical support and funding provided by the National Research Council and Natural Resources Canada, the codes should put Canada on comparable footing with leading countries in energy-efficient building construction.

After municipalities, the construction industry, professionals, safety code officers and the Building Sub-Council of the Safety Codes Council indicated that applying the NECB 2011 on May 1, 2016, would not be feasible, the Alberta government extended the deadline to November 1, which also coincided with the mandatory application date for the ABC 2014 changes.

The energy codes deal with four building systems: the building envelope, lighting, HVAC systems and service water heating. They are in effect construction codes but with energy efficiency as the objective. Accordingly, the same provincially trained and certified safety code officers who issue building permits and conduct construction inspections will now be trained and certified to handle energy codes as well.

“The NECB, as it is written, is a legal document outlining minimum energy efficiency standards for the design and construction of buildings,” explains Justin Pockar, an energy and environment coordinator with the City of Calgary. “We have always viewed energy efficiency as a nice-to-have in the province of Alberta, but we now have mandatory requirements.”

Through ongoing education, both construction and design firms are developing comfort with the new codes. For example, DIALOG brought in representatives of the architecture and mechanical and electrical engineering disciplines in January to talk to staff at the company’s Edmonton studio about the effects of the changes.

“The requirements of the code reinforce the importance of making decisions as a multi-disciplinary team early on since all disciplines are affected by the NECB,” says Justin Phill, a member of the company’s mechanical engineering department.

Fortunately, there is a great deal of flexibility in how these requirements can be achieved. “The beauty about energy is it doesn’t care where it comes from or where it is going. It just needs to know how much of it there is,” Pockar says.

Alberta Municipal Affairs describes the three paths to compliance as follows:

  1. Performance: The building’s energy performance goals are met through detailed design. This approach affords design flexibility while still hitting the project’s efficiency targets.
  2. Performance using simple tradeoff: The project meets its energy-efficiency targets by trading off increased performance in one area for reduced performance in another. For instance, a builder can choose to increase wall insulation and go with less efficient windows. Builders can make these decisions without having to bring on a professional designer.
  3. Prescriptive: The project’s energy performance requirements are achieved by following the code’s prescribed approach for each of the various building elements, such as thermal insulation levels.

If a client has a unique design situation that makes following code prescriptions challenging, compliance can almost always be achieved through a performance solution. DIALOG’s Trina Larsen, a senior electrical engineer experienced in sustainable design and construction of multiple building types, has worked on projects that warranted the performance path.

“We completed an early energy model to determine if the building complied,” she explains. “The initial design was just slightly out of compliance, so the team explored alternative options, decided on a coordinated approach, remodelled the building and brought the building into a safe margin of compliance.”

It is important to note that operations cannot be used to demonstrate compliance. Turning off the lights or keeping the building at a certain temperature may save energy, but compliance with the energy codes is about how the building is designed and constructed, not how it is operated.

Pockar, who sits on the Standing Committee on Energy Efficiency in Buildings, the primary committee that governs the energy code content, notes that the document is not particularly technically challenging, but the new energy-efficiency targets will result in procedural changes. For instance, design drawings must be more closely adhered to now and substitutions may be more onerous.

Importantly, the NECB aligns with ASHRAE 90.1, the U.S. standard that provides minimum requirements for energy-efficient designs for buildings with the exception of low-rise residential. That means equipment can still be imported from south of the border.

“If you have a set of standards put in place that are wildly different than the American standards, it really reduces the amount of equipment available, which correspondingly drives up costs,” Pockar says. “Being aligned with ASHRAE 90.1 is economical.”

As might be expected, implementation of the new codes has not always been smooth. This is the province’s first time adopting an energy-efficiency standard, and there are technical and—perhaps more substantially—procedural challenges for industry, Pockar says. But many construction leaders will likely find themselves well prepared for the task of meeting the new codes.

“I think [the challenges] are less an issue with complex buildings, as they have been dealing with these coordination and performance objectives in the past,” he says.

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