What is the BC energy step code?

What is the BC Energy Step Code?

Get the 411 on who, what, where, how and why the BC Energy Step Code is impacting new construction in British Columbia.

If you’re a builder in the province of British Columbia, you’ve probably encountered Step Code in some form already. You might have heard about it through a dedicated army of precinct building inspectors, seen it on flyers advertising “BC Energy Step Code Trainings” at BCIT, or maybe heard about it  in post-work rumblings around the water cooler.  

BC Energy Step code is an elective series of building performance criteria designed to improve end-use energy efficiency in new construction. 

This is in support of the larger (likely national-scale) goal that starting in 2032 all new buildings will be constructed ‘Net Zero Energy Ready’. In the meantime, the implementation of the ‘steps’ path is optional and varies depending on the municipality. 

But do you know what’s actually contained in the BC Energy Step Code? And do you know how it’s planned to shift gradually over the coming years?  

This article will summarize the Step Code and give you a few tools to manage it from the builder’s side.  

Why do we need to build better than code-minimum? 

BC Step Code is one small part of the BC Climate Action Plan, which was established in 2008. The action plan outlines tangible measures to drastically reduce the region’s climate-change impact (and ultimately protect our coastal cities from being absorbed into the ocean and mountain communities from going up in smoke).  

This translates to, by virtue of the Step Code, the ability for all new construction to be built Net Zero Energy Ready by 2032.   

Architecture firms and city planners are working to imagine flood protection systems for coastal cities as climate change continues to impact water levels and storms. Image source: Source: Architecture firm BIG
Architecture firms and city planners are working to imagine flood protection systems for coastal cities as climate change continues to impact water levels and storms. Image source: Source: Architecture firm BIG

First, though – what exactly does Net Zero Energy Ready mean?

A Net Zero Energy Ready building designed so that with the addition a renewable energy source like solar panels, the building’s systems can produce as much energy as the structure consumes.

The ‘Ready’ aspect creates a distinction between the building itself and the energy source (which is not an aspect of the Step Code).

Why does this matter?

According to Natural Resources Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency, since 1990, residential Canadian households:

  • Have grown in size per occupant
  • Increased the amount of air-conditioned space by 105%
  • Have more energy-drawing appliances (per household)
  • Proportionately have been built faster than the growth of the population
Energy use in Canada continues to rise according to the Natural Resources Canada’s Office of Energy Efficiency

Energy use isn’t going down.

In response, Net Zero Energy Ready buildings leverage the other half of the energy-use equation by being constructed with a few uniform requirements:

  • Airtight building envelope
  • More insulation
  • High performance windows
  • Energy-managing HVAC systems

How is the BC Energy Step Code organized?

BC Energy Step Code requirements depend on the building type.

As defined in the National Building Code of Canada (NBCC), “Steps” are tiered differently. 

The Step Code differentiates between NBCC Part 9 (homes and small buildings) versus Part 3 (large and complex buildings).

BC Energy Step code broken into residential vs commercial requirements

What’s in the BC Energy Step Code?

The Step Code itself is actually pretty simple. 

It’s a series of building performance benchmarks that progress how energy efficient a structure is compared to existing code minimums.

Remember, Step Code was devised as an industry prompt to gradually introduce the skills, techniques and products needed to achieve Net Zero building. 

Step Code for residential and small buildings (Part 9 buildings) has 5 Steps, whereas commercial properties (Part 3 buildings) has only 4 Steps.

Despite the difference in number of progressive steps, both commercial and residential buildings will start and end at the same place: with the existing (in 2008) BC Building Code evolving to include Net Zero Energy Ready requirements (in 2032).

BC Step Code Pathway to 2032 energy efficiency residential timber frame buildings
BC Step Code Pathway to 2032 energy efficiency homes

The first Step is designed as an easier one to achieve. It’s designed to boost your confidence and give you some experience for when you face the tougher steps.  It requires you to build to current BC Building Code, but also include energy modeling and airtightness testing. 

Bonus: you get to use these new skills to gauge future Steps.

Sign up for the BC Step Code air and moisture management workshop

What’s NOT in the BC Energy Step Code?

Step Code tells you where you have to go, but not how exactly to get there.

Construction techniques to achieve Net Zero performance can take any number of paths, depending on the nature of the project. But in all practicality – you aren’t going to get there with a mud hut.

You’ll need to implement some variation of the Net Zero bullet points above – air-sealing, insulation, windows, and HVAC systems.

And if you are going to just pick one to start with, air-sealing presents the biggest bang for your energy-efficiency buck.

Which Step am I on?

Municipalities are free to adopt the Step Code however they want. So, depending on where your project is located geographically, you may not always be building to the same Step requirements.

For a breakdown of exactly which Step your region is using, refer to the Energy Step Code website.

Helpful resources to get you there.

Don’t worry! You’re not being thrown into the deep end unsupported. Here are three suggested resources for upping your skill to reach Step Code requirements.

  1. BC Housing website – Several compliance Guidebooks are available to help you understand the step code regulations. In particular, BC Housing worked with well-known regional building-science engineering firm RDH to create a robust Builder’s manual that’s worth downloading.
  2. Passive House Canada – Passive House Canada is an organization dedicated to promoting building residential and commercial properties to the Passive House Standard, a rigorous energy efficiency classification. While you may not be interested in trying to build to the Passive House standard, resources provided by the organization may help you reach the goals you’ve outlined for pieces of your structure’s assembly to achieve a necessary Step Code level.
  3. Hands on training – To receive hands-on training and learn the skills necessary for achieving the airtightness requirements of the Step Code sign up for one of SIGA’s academy workshops. The Airtightness and Moisture Management in High Performance Building Envelopes workshop combines classroom and hands-on training for achieving Step Code. During the session you can expect to learn:
  • Building science fundamentals and the environmental impacts that affect building performance
  • Building envelope key components & terms
  • The importance of a continuous weather & air tightness layer(s)
  • Strategies to avoid risk from design to implementation

The course is accredited for:

  • 4 BC Housing CPD Credits
  • 4 AIBC Core Learning Units

Sign up to receive a notification about the next training session HERE.

Sign up for the Canada air and moisture managment training workshop for BC Step Code
Avatar for Jessica Kumor

Jessica Kumor

Jessica is SIGA North America's Marketing Director. It's her job to deliver you the latest research and practical tips for building air and weathertight buildings. When she's not interviewing customers and posting about building science you can find her refinishing furniture.

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