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An Interview with Nigel Protter, Energy Advisor at Shape Energy

In our conversation with Nigel Protter, an Energy Advisor at Shape Energy, we gained valuable insights into sustainable construction and energy efficiency. 

We dive into the details of the new BC Energy Step Code, discussing its impact on building regulations and energy standards in British Columbia. 

Discover how this innovative code paves the path for a greener future and learn how Airtight Solutions, with its cutting-edge air sealing services, plays a crucial role in meeting these new energy efficiency requirements.

Can you explain what the new BC Energy Step Code requirements are and how they differ from previous building standards in British Columbia?

Sure. That’s a really big subject, but there’s a key difference. 

The Step Code is a performance code, and the old building codes were known as prescriptive codes. So what that means is a prescriptive code just dictates every piece of a house that goes into the house, a two by six R 20 insulation, for example, windows at a certain performance rating and everything in the house has to meet a minimum standard. 

A performance code can only be implemented if you’re using an energy model because what it does, is it lets you make, let’s say you want big windows. Big windows lose a lot of heat, and that can impact the likelihood of a house passing code. So you want big windows, great. You lose a lot of heat there. Let’s add some installation somewhere else. Let’s throw a heat pump in. Let’s do something else. 

When you put those pieces together in an energy model, you get a result that calculates how the house performs as a system, whether or not it meets a minimum energy standard. So that’s performance code.

What challenges do you anticipate for the building industry in meeting the airtightness standards set by the BC Energy Step Code?

Well, they do have challenges and the issue is discipline of your training and discipline of your team and your trades. 

When you get perforations or holes in your air barrier that you don’t know about, that can be a real problem, and it can be very difficult to find. So that’s why we encourage builders to do a mid construction air tightness test to get around those issues of unknown air leaks. 

So you have to incentivize your crew and your trades to perform and you have to train them, first of all, and point out why they need to maintain the integrity of the air tightness of the house in their work. Electricians and plumbers and HVAC people, heating, ventilation people drill a lot of holes and run a lot of wires and pipes and things, and they’re very difficult to seal up properly around a round wire or round pipe. It’s hard taping and stuff like that. So you need proper gasketing and proper methods to get that stuff through an assembly so that you don’t lose air through there. 

And also, I think it’s a good idea to incentivize people to, you know, the better you perform on the air tightness test at final, maybe a little bonus might be in order or something. Or at least not a penalty, let’s say that.

What opportunities might builders encounter in adapting to the new BC Energy Step Code requirements?

Builders are being separated by those who can and those who can’t. 

It is relatively easy to build a Step Three house and meet the air tightness requirements for Step Three. And that’s now in force across all of BC. But when you get up to the higher steps, Step Four and particularly Step Five it becomes a real challenge and techniques are important. 

And so builders who are successful at doing this routinely without incurring a lot of extra cost and time and hassle, are the ones that are gonna; keep having fun, building, making money and getting the clients. And those that can’t, don’t or won’t – it’s not gonna work so well for them. That’s the way it is. 

But there’s good news there. Builders are up to the challenge. And I think it’s very rare that I see a builder that doesn’t want to do better and improve.

What is your impression on how AeroBarrier technology can impact the development of energy-efficient home builds?

AeroBarrier is a really interesting product. It can solve a lot of problems. There can be a cost to it if you’re not planning on using it in the right way.

So AeroBarrier can reduce construction risk. That’s really the main thing. But only if it’s planned ahead of time. AeroBarrier basically reduces construction risk and can reduce labour cost. And those are the key issues.

Construction risk is a huge factor for builders. They know that. It doesn’t sound like it to a regular person, but it is. And labour cost is a huge factor for all involved in the industry. So anything we can do to reduce labour costs and get more houses built faster for less money is better.

We’re not gonna reduce the number of workers in the industry. We’re gonna increase the number of houses built if we can reduce labour.

How do the additional costs or investments involved in meeting these new requirements compare to the long-term savings in terms of energy efficiency?

Step Code has multiple goals.

There’s the personal goal for the owner and then there’s the provincial energy infrastructure goal, and then there’s the federal goal of carbon reduction for the owner.

What Step Code does is it reduces operating costs of the house. And, the cost of doing that is paying a little more upfront, 2% to 8% more upfront, for materials, for labour, for energy modelling, for all those things. It’s usually a pretty small increment to build a Step Three house versus a non Step Code house. It’s really just about doing it better, making it more airtight. 

A Step Three house, for example, is pretty much a prescriptive code house built more air tightly with a little bit of thought to windows and insulation. So what you’re doing is you are going to reduce the operating cost of the house, the monthly energy bill by a lot if you do the right thing from a provincial perspective. 

Because provinces are responsible for energy infrastructure and supply and sales of energy to people, to consumers, to business. It gives them by doing the energy modelling and collecting the data on the housing stock, we’re giving them the province and BC Hydro and Fortis information. They need to plan for new infrastructure, new transmission, new sources of electricity and whatever else they want to use for energy. And by reducing the demand of new housing and also existing housing under renovation programs and so on, we reduce the demand for more infrastructure, more energy. And that reduces your tax costs, your social costs and all those things. 

Federally, Canada’s a signatory to international climate change commitments around the reducing the carbon emissions, of course, and other matters. Energy modelling for the most part is an audited process when we use the EnerGuide rating service to do that.

EnerGuide is a federal standard for rating the energy performance of houses. And when we use that process, it’s audited and it is auditable. And that audit chain is carried on all the way up through Canada’s annual reporting on carbon reductions to the international agreements. It’s signed. So, that’s another reason. 

So there’s three levels to this. So the benefits from a consumer standpoint though, really are comfort and lowering our operating costs. And the payback is usually within two to six years, the average homeowner lives in a house for 11 to 12 years. So the payback is there for the average homeowner who built a house.

What advice would you give to builders and professionals in the building industry who are preparing to comply with the airtightness requirements of the BC Energy Step Code?

Okay. The advice I’d give builders who are having to comply with the air tightness requirements of Step Code are to plan ahead to train, train, train yourself, your staff and your trades, provide incentives and also disincentives to not pass to trades particularly.

So make them responsible and plan ahead if you’re gonna use whatever air barrier system you’re gonna use. And there’s a nuance to this. We use both air barriers and vapour barriers in houses. So we’re talking about air tightness now, which is principally about air barriers, but they can sometimes be the same thing. 

Anyway, make sure you know what you’re gonna use, why you’re gonna use it, and you’re not using too much or too little, and you’re using it in the right way. So that’s what a builder needs to do.

And they need to know, Step Code was designed to provide a learning step. Step One was a learning step. A lot of communities went through Step One and builders got a chance to learn, and they weren’t penalized if they didn’t meet the air tightness minimums. As we get to higher steps, you are definitely responsible to meet those, and it can be very, very expensive if you don’t. 

So certainly I don’t have to tell builders this. They know this, they’re doing it. energy advisors like myself certainly we, I spend a lot of time, I spend maybe 20% of my time talking to people, educating them. We do lunch and learns. We go to meet builders and their crews and talk to them conversationally about challenges and opportunities they have in this. So there’s all kinds of things you can do.

Can you share any success stories or best practices from Airtight Solutions' previous projects in relation to airtightness and energy efficiency that align with the goals of the BC Energy Step Code?

Yeah. I certainly have seen firsthand examples of where products like AeroBarrier have been able to rescue houses from otherwise disastrous cost overruns in trying to mitigate air leak and also making it possible for certain houses to meet Step Code that otherwise it would be prohibitive cost-wise to do that.

So AeroBarrier is certainly, in the grand scheme, not a big cost. For a house to do it, it’s certainly better to plan ahead and not have to do it as a rescue scenario. Which sometimes happens, but it can sure save someone a lot of problems even in a rescue scenario.

So, yeah, I’ve seen it firsthand a few times. Yeah, it’s great that way.

As an energy advisor, how do you think Airtight Solutions can support builders and professionals in navigating the transition to meeting the BC Energy Step Code's air tightness requirements?

Companies like AeroBarrier and Airtight Solutions, it’s really about getting builders to decide whether or not an AeroBarrier application is gonna be part of the normal course of construction or a rescue.

We don’t want it to be a rescue. We want to see products like that used in and planned for as part of the project management structure and done at a time and place, because you can save a lot of money by not having to prep for AeroBarrier. 

In a house that’s pretty much finished – it will require quite a bit of prep work that’s very expensive. The prep work can be more cost to protect furniture – or appliances and other things in the house, flooring – from the material that’s used in AeroBarrier that can be more costly than the actual product itself.

So when you do it at the right time in the building process, that cost is not part of it, and it can be a very cost effective way. 

You’re saving, again, labour time, and you’re reducing risk, and those are valuable things. So we see a lot of passive houses that are going for passive certification are using it as a matter of course, because it’s just a way to guarantee you’re gonna reach the very high standard of air tightness required by passive houses. 

And we’re seeing it on a few Step Five houses, and we’re seeing it even in Step Four and Three houses.

What has your company, Shape Energy, noticed since the new BC Energy Step Code requirements became effective May 1st, 2023?

Well, 2023 is May 1st, 2023 was not the beginning of Step Code. It was the beginning of Step Code across all of BC including rural areas that weren’t subject to Step Code. 

So what it means is Step Three is now the minimum – Step One is gone. Step One was the learning step. Step Two was sort of the grade one to high school step, and now we’re in university. So it’s serious business, and you have to meet a minimum standard. And if you don’t, it can be very expensive. 

What the May 1st update did, was it updated the 2018 building code for that. And so people working in rural areas may feel that “wow, now I’ve gotta bring an energy advisor on board,” whereas “I didn’t before I could build prescriptively and not have to bear that cost.”

But actually for those districts that are allowing… So one thing you have to know about the May 1st transition was that there is an allowance for a prescriptive code still but the new prescriptive code is much more stringent than it used to be prior to May 1st. 

So either you’re gonna have to use a two by eight framing and two by eight insulation. So that’s R 28 insulation in your walls. And you’re gonna have to use very high performance windows, probably triple glazed windows, even for a notionally Step Three house. 

That’s overbuilding a Step Three house. Sure, we want all houses to be as good as possible, but not everybody can afford that. So I’m quite okay with somebody just getting over the minimum of Step Code.

But to do that prescriptively, it’s gonna cost them $20,000 to $30,000 more than it would’ve prior to May 1st with all those materials and extra pieces that have to go into that house now. So I think it pays, certainly even for people building in remote areas to engage in an EA (Energy Advisor) they only have to visit the site once. So that’s a lot less than the increment you’d spend building prescriptively even in remote areas. 

At Shape Energy, we specialize in remote areas. We go by boat, we go by airplane, we go by 4×4 into all kinds of places. That’s why we live where we live and do what we do. We like doing that. 

So we service all of our Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, way up into the South Chilcotin, Upper Fraser Canyon, Sunshine Coast and the islands. 

And we do that happily. We do it all day every day. No problem.

How will the new BC Energy Step Code requirements influence the demand for airtightness products and services like Airtight Solutions?

Well, it’s still getting out there. Builders don’t all know about it yet, and they don’t understand it all yet if they know about it, and they don’t see necessarily yet how to fit it into their workflow, into their pricing. 

So one of the biggest things I see a lot of, I see a lot of exterior air barriers, which are in addition to an interior barrier. And that’s something that the passive house community has sort of pushed for a long time, is to do these exterior air barriers. And they’re quite expensive. 

It’s basically like a Gore-Tex coat over your house, and its seam sealed everywhere. So you’re sealing with very expensive tapes. You’re putting these peel and stick or these stick on coatings that are essentially Gore-Tex with a fabric-like backing on them over the entire house.

You’re taping it into windows and around windows and all the openings and you’re also putting an air barrier on the inside of the house. So some people might not agree in the industry, but I’ll go ahead and say it. 

I think if you were to use AeroBarrier, you don’t need that. I think personally, I don’t always think it’s necessary to have an exterior barrier. If you do a proper interior barrier it can certainly help a lot of things. But it’s expensive. The issue is, it’s very expensive to do. 

At Shape Energy, we’re all about reducing the cost of high performance houses. So what do we really need to produce that high performance house? 

So, let me say this a Step Four or five house with just an interior air barrier, particularly a Step Five house, using AeroBarrier is gonna be as air tight as it needs to be, if you take care of your outer envelope and you use less expensive products for house wrap, the typical ones like Tyvek type wraps, which are much easier to apply and really just reduce wind flow into the house.

That’s really what you wanna reduce. You don’t want the wind to get into the framing of the house. That’s what you wanna avoid, because that reduces the performance. But when we’re talking about air tightness now that’s handled from the inside, in most cases particularly with a combination of AeroBarrier and good outer envelope sealing. 

So if you build that into your project and your budget you’re gonna probably come out ahead.

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