The British Columbia coroner’s report on last year’s 619 extreme-heat-related deaths in the province recommends building codes be updated to require cooling systems, but experts call that measure a “necessary but insufficient action” as Canadian summers grow dangerously hotter.
Changing codes is the most complete way of tackling the issue—ensuring that technical standards are universally applied for new construction—but it’s certainly not the quickest, Andrew Pape-Salmon, a former building and safety standards employee for B.C.’s housing ministry, told CBC News.
For example, Vancouver recently approved a plan that requires new multi-family dwellings of a certain size to have mechanical cooling that keeps indoor temperatures no higher than 26°C, but it doesn’t go into effect until January 2025, writes CBC.
Where building codes are “necessary but insufficient action,” incentive programs—also encouraged in the coroner’s report—might be more efficient and more immediate, said Pape-Salmon, explaining that giving landlords financial backing to voluntarily find ways to cool their buildings will be key to protecting more people more quickly.
Another challenge with the building code is that “it really only touches somewhere on the order of 4 to 6% of the building stock in any particular year,” said Pape-Salmon, since it typically only affects new builds.
Pape-Salmon was responding to B.C. coroner Dr. Jatinder Baidwan’s remarks at a media conference following his report on last summer’s deadly heat dome. Baidwan said the regulatory silence on cooling systems needs to be redressed. (Landlords are expected to maintain a level of heat at their properties during winter months, but no such rules exist for cooling during summers, writes CBC.)
“Current building codes in B.C. do not consider cooling in the same manner as they consider heat,” Baidwan said. “As codes are revised, they will need to reflect the current climate science.”
Building codes that require passive and active cooling, including heat pumps, building materials, insulation, ventilation, greening, tree canopy, landscape permeability, and solar reflectivity can help mitigate the effects of extreme heat events, the coroner’s report found.
But experts worry that the report’s focus on a “future-proof” building stock will do little to protect most residents from looming heat events.
While mandating things like heat pumps and upgraded building envelopes are part of the sustainable solutions that keep citizens cool in an overheating world, public education about passive cooling is also vital, said Alexandra Rempel, assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Oregon. Simple regimes, like keeping heat out during the day by closing and screening south- and east-facing windows, and opening all windows at night to let cooler air blow through, will be critical to keeping temperatures within liveable range. “It’s not going to necessarily be comfortable, but it shouldn’t be deadly,” Rempel said.