Building Codes and Housing Affordability

Building Codes and Housing Affordability

We are constantly required to perform a range of cost benefit analyses to cope with today’s complicated life. Most of these take the form of simple decisions that are done in our heads. Would route A or B be faster given the weather conditions and day of the week? Should I replace my worn out water heather with another rental because it’s financially manageable based on cash flow even though I’ll probably pay for it 10 times over during its life or do I pay cash up front and save money in the long term? Do I pay for expensive health insurance premiums to cover the risk of some unforeseen illness or do I accept the risk and save the money for other more immediate expenses? The common factor in all such analyses is that we have control and can make the best possible decision based on the unique factors affecting each of our lives.

There are however, a constantly increasing number of decisions impacting us that are made by others, for which we have no input or even knowledge of their existence. One such example is the Ontario Building Code which regulates everything about how our homes are constructed. On one hand it is very positive and comforting to have an informed group of building science professionals making decisions to ensure that our homes are structurally sound and built to a set of minimum requirements. In large measure, it is our codes which have resulted in Canadians being recognized as one of the best, if not the best housed people in the world. Unfortunately, some governments have now begun to use Building Codes as an extension of their political policies that have no relationship to safety or security. Even worse, these changes are having a significant negative impact on the price of new homes.

Governments in Canada started down this road approximately two decades ago as energy costs increased and greenhouse gas data began to emerge. In order to address this threat, decisions were made to use building codes to dramatically increase the energy efficiency of new homes. Most would agree with this approach although few realize that the resulting cost increase has been in excess of $30,000 per home. In a very real sense government has been able to have its cake and eat it too because it was not only able to implement political policy but also increase tax revenue that could be creamed off the top as prices rose.

Building Codes are constantly under review and in Ontario there are several changes currently underway that will be implemented in January 2018. Let’s contrast a change that clearly falls within the historical code mandate of safety and security with a couple of others that advance the theme of extending political policy at considerable cost to all new home buyers while benefitting only a small group of homeowners.

The first change involves increasing the width of a stair step known as a tread. The historical minimum requirement has been 8 ¼”. Based on an aging population, a decision has been made to increase the minimum width to 10” in order to try and reduce injuries from elderly residents slipping and falling on a set of stairs. Although this will result in an average set of stairs being extended by over two feet with a consequent cost increase, most would agree that there is sound logic and justification for such a change.

Contrast this with two other changes which many believe have no place as a minimum requirement in a building code. The first change will require that roof trusses in all new low rise wood frame residential structures have increased structural capacity in order to support roof mounted solar panel systems. Depending on the design of the roof system involved the cost increase is estimated to be in the range of $500 to $1,000. Should every new home in Ontario be equipped accordingly at substantial cost or should only those homeowners who decide to install a roof mounted solar system pay this amount to have their truss capacity increased on an ‘as required’ basis?

A second example is the requirement for all new single family and townhouse units to be equipped with 200 AMP electrical panels in order to accommodate future electric car charging systems. Hydro Ottawa is not able to determine exact cost increases because each community is unique, but based on their input, builders estimate the cost increase to range between $500 and $1,500 per home. Currently, homes in Ottawa are equipped with 100 AMP electrical service but even this level offers increased capacity over previous decades as energy efficient appliances and heating systems have been introduced. Builders have advised government that all standard electrical car charging systems can be accommodated within a 100 AMP system but this information appears to have been ignored. Current practice is that any homeowner requiring additional electrical capacity for such things as swimming pools, saunas or high speed EV charging systems can simply apply, pay the additional cost and be connected. Again, what purpose is being served by having every new home buyer in Ontario pay additional costs that are unnecessary for the vast majority and must be included in a mortgage and paid for over the next 30 years?

Local MPPs Chiarelli and McLeod recognize this requirement as unnecessary and the negative impact it will have on housing affordability. They have both worked hard to lobby the Minister of Municipal Affairs responsible for the Building Code. Let’s hope that he listens, recognizes that the government’s real priority should be housing affordability and directs his staff to return to using the Building Code for its intended purpose.

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