The fallacy of building homes to imposed standards

Monday, August 28th, 2006

William Watson

A CanWest News Service story recently reported on construction industry concerns that new Kyoto-inspired changes in national building codes could raise the price of new homes by as much as $15,000.

It quoted the president of the Ontario Home Builders Association: “We will basically have to unlearn everything we’ve learned over the last 30 years and retrain virtually our [entire] industry workforce to build houses to a higher energy-efficiency standard.”

For a whole industry to unlearn and re-learn everything it knows could be very expensive.

Even so, a new report from the federal government, the Canadian Gas Association and the Canadian Electricity Association said aggressive new regulation probably wouldn’t cut the growth of energy demand by more than half.

Other people told CanWest the cost of new energy-efficiency codes wouldn’t be as high as feared.

Once everyone gets used to the change, there are economies of scale. A regulatory change in Quebec a few years ago supposedly added only $3,000 to the price of a home.

And, said the man from the Sierra Club, it’s all a matter of balancing costs and returns: “It’s a question of whether you pay a bit more at the beginning and a lot less [in energy costs] every month, or whether you pay less at the beginning and a lot more every month.”

Duh? Well, how stupid are we?

If building a better-insulated home pays back in reduced energy bills, real estate agents should be able to explain that to prospective buyers. When thousands of our own dollars are involved, maybe tens of thousands over the life of a home, even the most innumerate among us generally is able to noodle around a calculator and figure out what’s best for the pocketbook.

And if making more environmentally efficient buildings can put cash dollars in buyers’ pockets, you’d think builders would be falling all over themselves to learn new tricks without having to be frog-marched into it by government regulations. They’re in the business of attracting customers, after all.

Which raises the deeper policy question of why we need building codes in the first place.

If it’s the 19th century and you’re living cheek by jowl with your neighbours in wooden row housing, maybe you want to make sure the guy half a mile down the road doesn’t start a conflagration that ends up burning your hovel down. Suing him after the fact — or more likely his estate — won’t do you much good.

But in the 21st century, even fire safety codes are of questionable value in many places.

When single-family dwellings are separated by spacious backyards, fires don’t tend to spread. Build or buy yourself a fire-prone house and you alone are the likely victim.

Yet, as explained on a helpful federal government website on “Canada’s code development system,” we now have national plumbing, farm building, housing, safety, accessibility, environmental and fire codes, though because all these are provincial responsibilities, they’re only law if provinces adopt them.

The history of codes suggests they arose because a multiplicity of municipal codes made it difficult for “designers, product manufacturers and contractors to conduct business in more than one region.”

The feds don’t say so, but local regs may have acted as a protectionist device for local suppliers; only they were intimately familiar with the rules, having probably helped write them.

Yes, if you do insist on legislating how things must be done, it may be very hard for producers to comply with multiple local codes. One code may therefore be better than many.

But zero codes may be better still. If you don’t have any codes, industry standards are bound to emerge as best practices spread by word of mouth and consumer demand.

If local governments don’t insist and builders do things differently from town to town and city to city, they probably won’t.

© The Vancouver Sun 2006

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