Vancouver city planners have unveiled a new strategy to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from new constructions by 2030.

"The Zero Emissions New Buildings is really the highest priority and the first most significant action towards our objective to have 100 per cent renewable energy in the city by the year 2050," said Sean Pander, Green Buildings program manager of the City's Sustainability Group.

Buildings and industry consume three-quarters of all the energy used in Vancouver with half of all the buildings expected by 2050 still to be built.

The city's plan focuses on residential buildings, including high-rises, which produce high levels of greenhouse gases and are thought to make up about 18 per cent of all new developments by area in the city.  

'Bare bones' over high-tech solutions

Instead of solar panels and other mechanically complicated solutions, the plan focuses on building design and quality — something Pander said will reduce high-rise building costs by two per cent and long-term operating costs by five per cent.  

"Really, the emphasis of the building needs to be on the bones of the building — window quality, insulation quality," said Pander.

City staff say putting complicated mechanical solutions into buildings has led to problems in other places.

"Relying on residential building owners and operators to maintain and operate that equipment at its best efficiency is very very challenging." said Pander.

Vancouver skyline

But developers are concerned that any new rules might lead to other problems.

"With every good intention, there are unintended consequences," said  Anne McMullin, president and CEO of the Urban Development Institute, a non-profit that represents developers and planners. 

"But we're prepared to work with the city to avoid adding costs that create more delays and limit supply." 

Focus on high and low-rise buildings

According to Pander, the 2014 bylaws on detached homes have reduced greenhouse gas emissions in new builds by 48 per cent from 2007 levels. That's significant because detached homes and duplexes make up 44 per cent of all the new square footage in Vancouver.

"Single family homes took the big step, now it's time for bigger buildings to take their next step," said Pander.

That means reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 16 per cent in new high-rise residential buildings and up to 50 per cent in low-rise residential buildings.

"When you look at low-rise, multiple residential buildings, they represent about 10 per cent of all new building area and it provides a real ideal form for passive housing," said Pander.

Passive housing is a building standard that uses high quality windows, insulation and walls to reduce heat loss in the winter and maximize cooling in the summer.

Despite the benefits, some developers have expressed cautious support.

"We all want to live in a conscientious region," said Neil Chrystal, president and CEO of Polygon, a Vancouver-based developer. "As long as we don't move too quickly to the detriment of the industry's other goals."

Neil Chrystal president CEO chief executive officer Polygon Homes Construction developer condo tower

Neil Chrystal, President & CEO of Polygon Homes Ltd.

One of those goals is to meet sales targets set when developers borrow money from the bank.

"We've been working with the City of Vancouver for about a year and a half on this proposed initiative," said McMullin. "But this is a decision the City has made — it's not like we can argue against it."

McMullin is concerned that the industry won't have enough time to adjust to new technology and building materials. As a result, the new rules could open a potential for even more delays.

"I hope the city is concerned about that too," she said. "It's not about us losing money, it's about us adding it onto the cost of housing."

She added: "We're the one's who have to meet the city's goals, otherwise things don't get built and then there's even more of an affordability crisis."

New green jobs

Pander expects eliminating new building emissions will help boost job growth in high-end window and insulation manufacturing.

"Once you can provide it locally, then the price comes down significantly," he said. "Instead of investing in technology, we're now investing in design, and most design is done locally."

But Vancouver isn't the only place where zero emission buildings are being talked about.

"There's this great alignment with New West and Surrey and Richmond and North Vancouver and Victoria," said Pander. "We're all on the same page."

Zero Emission Centre for Excellence

A cornerstone of the report recommends establishing a Zero Emission Centre for Excellence to connect people in the industry and help problem-solve zero emission design and construction. They recommended the city contribute $700,000 in seed money to get the centre going.  

"Formal training is essential, but it's also peer-to-peer dialogue," said Pander.

The idea is to create a neutral place where trades people can bump elbows with architects and figure out problems in the same hub model New York has implemented.

But in the end, none of this is expected to dampen the cost of property in Vancouver.

"Construction costs are expensive, but more significant are land costs," said Pander. "And this plan obviously won't change that."