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How Vancouver is pushing to build a city of zero emissions buildings

The city is trying to reduce carbon emissions from new buildings by 60%. These are the five steps it’s taking to get there.

How Vancouver is pushing to build a city of zero emissions buildings
[Photo: Aditya Chinchure/Unsplash]

Like many global metropolitan cities, homes and buildings are the largest source of carbon pollution. Vancouver is no exception. Nearly 60% of Vancouver’s carbon pollution comes from the natural gas used for heating in our buildings. That’s a lot.

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We knew years ago that we needed bold regulation to curb these emissions and tackle climate change. We also knew that broad partnerships and industry consultation and buy-in were key to the success of any building emissions-reduction strategy. If we were to make a dent in carbon emissions quickly, we needed to fundamentally shift building practice in under 10 years. That wasn’t a lot of time.

But we did just that. With support from the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance’s Innovation Fund, we collaborated closely with the building industry and its partners, and, in 2016, Vancouver’s City Council approved a Zero Emissions Building (ZEB) plan. That plan launched a bold commitment to make near-zero emissions homes and buildings the new normal in Vancouver by 2030. Few cities had yet gone that far.

Here’s what that means for our city now and how we made it happen:

First, the ZEB plan set policy requirements to reduce carbon emissions from new buildings by 60%

We needed significant changes to how new buildings were designed, constructed, and operated. Introducing this completely new regulatory structure—and establishing ambitious limits on emissions, heat loss, and energy use intensity—was no small feat, however.

We started with industry leaders in Vancouver that were already designing and constructing super energy-efficient buildings. And we leveraged their experience to learn what was most effective—not only on paper but in practice. We relied on local innovators, working closely with construction practitioners, developers, utilities, and stakeholders, as well as the Province of British Columbia and other municipalities in the region. We even went on a research trip to Europe to bring back best practices to the North American context.

We left no stone unturned in getting the regulation right.

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Second, the city committed to lead by example

That means we committed to building all new city facilities to the Passive House standard or equivalent and use zero-emissions fuel sources when possible. Again, no small feat. (Passive House is the world’s most aggressive standard for super-efficient buildings. It emphasizes a “sweater and windbreaker” approach and includes extra insulation, air tightness, and heat recovery ventilation to reduce the need for complex technologies.)

[Photo: Spencer Watson/Unsplash]

Thankfully, we had Passive House designers and builders living locally. So, we consulted them. And their experience helped us identify regulatory obstacles that were slowing the number of Passive Houses built in Vancouver. This act, and the solutions that sprung from it, freed up a number of regulatory barriers, such as zoning and floor space relaxations to accommodate thicker walls and ceilings.

In just four years, we went from one Passive House certified home, in 2015, to 2,800 housing units this year, built or permitted to the Passive House standard or using an alternative zero-emissions approach. That’s serious progress.

Third, we fostered industry buy-in

We needed an understanding of the multiple technical challenges facing industry when transitioning to a zero-emissions requirement. And, of course, we needed to define the path, set clear and bold targets, and identify stepped improvements toward that goal. That was the obvious part.

But throughout this process, other needs emerged, like growing local capacity and skills to keep pace with the changes required. So, we worked with the local technical college to expand skills training so that home-grown design solutions and construction innovations could flourish.

We also built institutions, such as the Zero Emissions Building Centre of Excellence. That local learning hub now hosts designer and builder dialogues, produces case studies, and delivers trainings to optimize solutions for best practice and industry scalability.

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Fourth, we encouraged local manufacturers to make the necessary technology

To transition buildings away from a dependence on fossil fuels, you need new materials such as high-performance windows, insulation and thermal breaks, and heat recovery ventilators.

We also helped create a BC Energy Step Code, working with the Province and other cities in the region. This “opt-in” energy code is structured like the ZEB Plan and can be adopted by cities with industry capacity and political will to build highly efficient buildings. Over 70% of new buildings permitted in the province are now being built to the Step Code.

This clear roadmap, of where Vancouver and other cities across the province are going with building code updates, makes it easier for builders and manufacturers to plan and innovate. They’re aware of what’s coming and assured that the demand for technology will continue to grow.

Fifth, we reaped, and continue to reap, the benefits

Vancouver is on track for better buildings—with lower heating bills, increased comfort for residents, and healthier indoor air quality—that are quieter and easier to maintain.

It’s positive for local jobs, too. Vancouver’s Economic Commission released a report stating that Vancouver and British Columbia’s zero emissions and net-zero energy ready building policies are stimulating a $3.3 billion market for high-performance building products and technologies in metro Vancouver. That’s incredible.

Despite this success, there is still more to do.

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For example, we’re looking at emissions associated with buildings materials, such as concrete, steel, and spray foam insulation. We now require developers to report the “embodied carbon” so that it can be measured and ultimately replaced by lower-carbon concrete mixes and tall wood (mass timber) buildings. And we just set a target this spring to reduce embodied carbon from new buildings and construction projects by 40% between now and 2030.

We’ll get there. We’ll cut the carbon while growing the economy. Our Zero Emissions Building plan is making that possible. It’s how we’re tackling climate change and making our homes and buildings healthier and more resilient. But it didn’t come easy, and it required we sit down with industry and collaborate. What a novel idea.


Sean Pander is the green building manager for the city of Vancouver.

Vancouver is a member of the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, a collaboration of leading global cities cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 80-100% by 2050 or sooner. This is a seven-part series featuring bold actions by cities to accelerate progress toward carbon neutrality, based on CNCA’s Game Changers Report.

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