This blog explores changes in the energy industry from an insider’s perspective as it transitions from the old centralized utility model to the new paradigm of distributed generation.
This blog was previously called Inside the Housing Evolution and focused on energy efficient homes. Ultimately, it’s all linked. Soon, every building will have the potential to generate, store, and sell energy. Welcome to the era of the transactive grid – the greatest shift the electricity sector has seen in over 100 years!

October 25, 2013 No Comments

City Regulations As A Barrier to Housing Innovation

foundationWhen people talk about the barriers to green building, the most common points that come up are the high cost of new technologies, the low cost of energy (at least in Canada), and the lack of consumer demand.  Another factor that is not as well recognized is the barrier to innovation caused by our city regulations and building codes.

In Canada, building codes are created by the Provinces, and enforced at the municipal level by city inspectors.  The codes dictate the minimum criteria for construction, and they are generally based off of years of experience of what has worked in the past.  If you want to design your houses any differently than what’s set out in the code, you first have to have your approach detailed and approved by a professional engineer, and then you need to have the engineer’s report approved by the city.  It’s a long and expensive process.

We came up with an innovative approach to residential foundation insulation that went beyond the minimum criteria outlined in the code.  We moved the insulation and vapour barrier from inside the concrete foundation to the outside.  This approach keeps the concrete from freezing in the winter, which reduces the chance of cracks, prevents condensation from occurring, and generally will keep basements more comfortable.  The approach is grounded in solid building science, and has been proven in commercial construction.

Once we had finalized the construction details of our approach, we began the lengthy process to get approval to use it.  We hired an outside engineer to scrutinize our design and prepare a report for submission to the city (at a cost of approximately $15,000).  We submitted our application to the city in June 2012.  It took 13 months for the file to work its way through the city before we finally got our approvals in July 2013.  This lengthy wait had tangible negative impacts for our company as well as our purchasers.  We had pre-sold homes promising this approach and without city approvals our schedule got delayed and we had to change the closing dates for many of our customers.

Although on one hand I’m being critical of the city, I actually can understand their position entirely.  Houses are expected to be safe for their inhabitants and last for 80 years or more.  We haves some confidence that any house built to the building code minimum will meet these expectations, but any changes outside of the code brings new risks.  The public counts on the city to police new construction, and they would be partially liable if they allowed a new approach that did not work.  It’s critical that the city understands the implications of new construction approaches before approving them, and the due diligence period is a necessary safeguard for them to study and scrutinize new approaches.

Although this is an understandable barrier, it is nevertheless very real.  Why would a builder take a risk on an innovative technique knowing that it will take over a year to be studied by the city with no promise that it will even be approved?  In business, time is money, and without a strong market demand for high performing homes, most companies will feel that it simply isn’t worth the time, expense and risk to innovate.   One solution to the problem would be for the city to hire more staff to help process new applications, but it’s a chicken and egg situation.  Few builders innovate, so the city doesn’t need staff to study innovations, so the applications that do come in take longer, which is a deterrent that keeps more builders from innovating!

If the government is serious about facilitating the transition to more energy efficient homes, then they will have to take leadership here and find a way to fast-track superior approaches to home design to make it easier for builders to innovate.

Update:  Since posting this article I had the opportunity to speak with the Manager of Permit Approvals for the City of Ottawa.  He told me that most submissions are handled much more quickly than ours was.  He went on to tell me that our experience sparked an audit of their internal process, with the end result being a new set of procedures which the city hopes will speed up the approvals process to within a couple of months.  I think this is a great resolution, because it shows that the city recognized the issue and is taking steps to improve their service.

Posted by Matthew

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Matthew Sachs

P. Eng. LEED AP

  • COO of Peak Power since July 2016
  • General Manager of Urbandale Construction (May 2008 – Oct 2014)
  • Vice-Chair R-2000 Renewal Committee
  • Member of Energy Star Technical Advisory Committee
  • Greater Ottawa Homebuilders Green Committee
  • Recipient of Canadian Homebuilder’s Association 2009 R-2000 Builder of the Year Award
  • Participant in Natural Resources Canada’s Technology Roadmap for Sustainable Housing
  • Energy Consultant with Marbek Resource Consultants (Feb 2002 – May 2006)

ABOUT PEAK POWER

Peak Power is a Microgrid project development company focused on delivering innovative solutions to offset the most expensive hours of electric demand. We specialize in optimizing the revenue streams from energy storage, advanced building automation, and renewable technologies for customer sited and utility scale projects. Please visit www.peakpowerenergy.com.