Opinion: New recipe for sustainable construction changes how homes are built in Vancouver

On November 17, 2020, The City of Vancouver Council approved the Climate Emergency Action Plan, putting Vancouver on track to reduce the city’s carbon pollution by 50% by 2030. The plan focuses on cutting carbon pollution from our biggest local source of carbon emissions as the burning of fossil fuels from buildings accounts for 54%.

The construction industry is slow to adapt to changing regulations and is in dire need of support. The way we build houses is pretty much the same as it was in the 1920s. Lumber is sent to building sites, crews cut and nail materials together, a variety of trades bring parts to the site then perform tasks to solve the complex puzzles around homebuilding. This all creates a large amount of waste and frustration.

As a builder and accountant, I find this incredibly inefficient. Many industries have significantly progressed over time, so why is construction stuck in the dark ages?

To create change, we need to learn from others, collaborate and constantly innovate. The answer is: Passive HouseLow Embodied CarbonElectrification and Clean Energy.

Based on these principles, we have developed BOSS (Building Offsite Sustainable Systems), which recently received $400,000 from the Province of BC’s CleanBC Building Innovation Fund. BOSS is a complete building model that provides builders with an open-source, prescriptive and concise method on how to build homes that are climate neutral. The goal is to cut carbon emissions and costs associated with building across a variety of housing types.

By reducing the learning curve for builders, we project BOSS can save nearly 40% of construction and operational GHG emissions, creating zero carbon, Passive House, sustainable homes with the ability to scale and change the affordability score card.

Here’s how BOSS works. It is a simple combination of method and materials.

  • Method

    • Digital twin replica of the project prior to construction

    • Panelized structure and components assembled off site

  • Materials

    • Natural, bio-based low embodied carbon materials

    • 100% electric and renewable sources of energy

Due to both the pre-designed approach and offsite repeatable nature, our goal is to reduce standard building costs and timelines by 15% to 20%.

A key ingredient is offsite construction, meaning the components such as walls, roofs, and floor panels are assembled at a designated facility then installed quickly onsite. Offsite facilities offer a controlled environment, allowing for safer working conditions, reduced construction waste and improved product quality.

Construction is dirty, noisy, dangerous, and time-consuming, causing neighbours significant stress and discomfort. Prefabrication of building components can reduce this inconvenience significantly.

BOSS also has the potential to help reduce Vancouver’s building permit backlog by creating a repeatable model for residential construction where developers and builders can use a standard set of plans that have been previously approved by the municipality.

A row of Vancouver Special homes in East Vancouver. (Kenneth Chan/Daily Hive)

The infamous “Vancouver Special” can be reimagined from the low-cost set of plans widely adopted through the 1960s to 1980s. Changing the siding, colours and roof of a build can dramatically change the look, preventing cookie cutter homes. The BOSS model can maintain sustainable core elements and be repeatable for the plan-checkers, inspectors, and builders to execute. This may also be a promising solution for the many affordable and supportive housing units that the City of Vancouver needs built.

The current bespoke one-off projects are costly and time-consuming. As we look for more affordable options, efficiency in the method and materials is paramount.

Our goal for BOSS is for it to be shared across the building industry, creating a collaborative and open-sourced approach to sustainable homes. Most importantly, BOSS will lower costs and impacts on climate change associated with residential construction for our communities now and into the future.

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Chris Hill, a board member of Passive House Canada, and the president of BCollective.

Author: Chris Hill