Exclusive: Building codes across Canada to be updated to reflect climate change

A resident of Fort McMurray, Alta, looks at the damage to homes on Thursday, June 2, 2016. Fires like the one that devastated the city are likely to become more frequent as a result of climate change, scientists have predicted. Jason Franson, The Canadian Press

Canada’s national building codes will be changing over the next five years to adapt to the effects of climate change, officials confirmed to Global News on Monday.

The National Research Council (NRC), which sets “model codes” for building, energy, plumbing and fire, has started working on updating some (or potentially all) of those documents to reflect the fact that Canada is seeing more heavy rain, floods, high winds, snow, ice, temperature swings and all-around extreme weather.

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“What we want to do is take the latest research, innovation and products that are in the market and introduce those into the codes so that our buildings will be designed to account for climate change,” said NRC program director Philip Rizcallah.

“We can see temperature-change trends, we can see higher wind-load trends, we can see evidence of wildfires for example in Fort Mac or Kelowna … in Calgary where we’ve had these flood situations where they’ve knocked out entire cities … the codes need to start adapting.”

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An initial call for tender went out Monday morning for help developing a project plan.

The NRC’s “model” codes aren’t the law of the land. But they do provide a common blueprint on which local building codes are modeled, and then adopted into law by provinces and individual municipalities.

This system, put into place nearly a century ago, prevents a patchwork of different regulations from cropping up across Canada.

Typically, Rizcallah explained, the NRC has based its model codes on historical data, getting information from Environment Canada on average rainfall or snow to inform the building code, for example.

“What we want to do now is … actually take forecasted data. What do we expect the climate, the temperature, the snow, the wind to be like after five years, 15 years, 25 years, even 100 years?”

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Technical specifications for a new home will need to reflect the possible environmental conditions that the home will have to withstand in the coming decades, he explained.

The climate-related update is part of “the Climate-Resilient Core Public Infrastructure project,” said Rizcallah, which has been underway for about six months already. If all goes to plan, it will result in new additions to the NRC’s model codes coming into force within the next four years.

“On the plumbing side … if you’re guarding against flood protection for example in a building, you’ll see things like back-flow preventers maybe being introduced in buildings so you don’t get water with sewage coming back into your building.”

On the building code side, “you’re going to build roofs that are going to withstand higher wind-loads if that’s what we predict the winds to be in the future.”

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There is mounting scientific evidence that Canadians can expect to see increasingly violent and unpredictable weather patterns and disasters as the planet warms.

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A government report made public last September predicted, for instance, that by the end of this century, a changing climate will at least double the area burned each year by forest fires across the country.

Another report from the University of Waterloo’s Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation indicated that Canada is woefully under-prepared for increased flooding.

Last May, the federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development highlighted the need to update the national building code given the new climate reality.

The NRC has received $40 million from Infrastructure Canada to make updates to its model codes. The money is also being used to improve the resilience of core public infrastructure (like bridges, sewage systems and roadways) by developing new guides, risk-assessment tools and life-cycle modelling tools.

Rizcallah said the two elements of the project necessarily go hand-in-hand.

“There’s no use in fixing your building if you can’t get electricity in that building, or sewage out of that building.”

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