Eliminate construction problems and save money by knowing how building codes work
Construction of new homes in Canada is governed by province specific building codes. Each province can either create their own building code or adopt the National Building Code of Canada, which is a model code. The BC and Alberta building codes, for example are based on the national model code, with additions such as seismic requirements to suit each province. The main purpose of the building code is to provide detailed requirements resulting in safe buildings. Many recent building code amendments also address reduction of water and energy usage of new homes.
The building code is enforced by local governments and in most cases by a building inspection department of a municipality or regional district. It is important to know that the current enforcement system is discretionary: a municipality or district may choose not to have an inspection process but in the majority of cases, local governments regulate the building process and enforce compliance with the building code and other local by-laws. Most urban regions have thorough processes in place to ensure high building standards and compliance with all codes and regulations. But some rural communities often lack the resources for building inspections and are unable to enforce building code compliance. Some people look intentionally for such communities when they plan to build recreational cottages. Building a seasonal cottage without the need to fully comply with all building code requirements can make a big difference on costs.
One example of a “building permit free region” is the Powell River Regional District in BC, which includes Savary Island. As a result of the lack of building permits, Savary Island hosts a variety of fantasy structures, from rustic shacks over fort with palisades to multi million dollar mansions. Denman and Hornby Islands are also permit free regions.
The building code doesn’t distinguish between cottages, regular residences or seasonal buildings. If a building department enforces the building code for cottages in their area, even a seasonal cottage must meet the same standards as a permanent residence. The only exception is for very small structures: Some municipalities allow buildings of up to 100 sq. ft. to be built without a building permit, but may need a siting permit. In some areas, seasonal-use-only cottages may be exempt from some code requirements, but may require the owner to enter into a covenant with the local building department specifying that it will only be used seasonally. Converting from a seasonal residence to a legal full-time residence can be very costly.
The majority of residential construction in Canada is done as wood frame construction, where walls are built with 2” x 6” wood studs, and the cavities are filled with insulation. The requirements for this type of construction are described in very much detail in Part 9 of the building code, and therefore wood frame buildings are sometimes called “Part 9 buildings.”
Most experienced builders have memorized all key requirements of the building code, and know what the height and width of stairs must be, how much steel to put into foundations and how to frame and insulate walls and ceilings. At different stages of the construction process a building inspector will visit the building site to ensure all building code requirements are met. He or she can request changes from the builders if they didn’t build according to the code. Depending on the type of change, this can result in extensive costs for the homeowner. If the homeowner or builder refuses to comply with the requirements of the building inspector, the inspector can refuse to provide an occupancy permit at the end of construction, or add a note about potential construction deficits to the title of the property. It is important to note that building codes are a minimum standard and not necessarily the best.
When selecting a builder for a new home, make sure the outfit has a good knowledge of the building code to minimize the chance of change requests from your building inspections.
Log homes are a popular choice for cottages and cabins. While log homes also need to comply with the building code, there are no detailed descriptions how to achieve this compliance. That’s why engineers need to be involved in the design of log homes, and—depending on the building inspector—sometimes also into the inspection process.
Many people who want to build their own home or cottage know a few key requirements from the building code. As a log home supplier, I often hear the question: “What is the insulation value of your log walls, it must be R20 according to the building code, or?” It is true, that Part 9 of most building codes contains detailed tables prescribing insulation requirements for frame walls, basements, different types of ceilings etc. But these tables cannot be applied to non-frame construction techniques like log homes.
Some building codes have recently been changed to better accommodate non-frame construction: The BC building code has a new Part 10, which offers an alternative way to comply with energy efficiency requirements. The builder or homeowner needs to participate in an EnerGuide Rating System® (ERS) process and achieve a certain rating, which proves the overall energy efficiency of the home. The Ontario building code offers the same alternative, and starting in 2012 the ERS process is mandatory for every new home in Ontario.
Homeowners normally don’t need to know much about the building code. The BC Building Code, for example, is more then 800 pages and is at least as difficult to read as legal documents for non-lawyers. Most building codes are also quite expensive: A paper copy of the BC Building Code costs $320, and online access costs $200 per year.
If you plan to build a new home or cottage, you should be aware of upcoming changes in the building code. The national model code is updated every 5 years, most recently in 2010. The provincial codes normally follow with their respective update 1 or 2 years later. The next version of the BC Building Code, for example, will be published in spring 2012 and become effective in fall 2012. New homes of any type (frame or non-frame construction) will need to be more airtight, better insulated and conform to new ventilation requirements, which should result in a 30 percent or more reduction in energy use. If somebody plans to build a new home or cottage, it can have a big impact on construction costs if the home is built before or after these changes are in effect.
This article was first published in the Nov/Dec 2011 issue of Cottage Magazine by Hermann Thoene and Niels Anthonsen.
About the Authors:
Hermann Thoene, Certified Energy Advisor and owner of Vanisle Ecolog Homes (ecolog-homes.ca). He also designs and supplies square log homes and cottages.
Niels Anthonsen, P.Eng., owner of Building Energy Engineering, is a Professional Engineer, Certified Energy Advisor and LEED A.P. and specializes in Thermal & Vapour management and Energy Modeling for Single Family and Multi Unit Residential Buildings. (niels@BEengineering.ca)