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Homes built today are designed to withstand today's weather. But today's weather is changing and becoming more extreme, and that may not bode well for property damage in future.

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By: Jason Thistlethwaite, Director, Climate Change Adaptation Project
2012-10-01

Climate change creates a significant challenge for Canadian homebuilders because it is linked to an increase in damaging extreme weather. Indeed, in the last few decades, homeowners have experienced a significant increase in property damage associated with extreme weather.

In 2011, for example, the Canadian property and casualty insurance industry paid out a record-breaking $1.7 billion in claims for property damage. Damage from wildfires in Slave Lake, Alberta, a tornado in Goderich, Ontario and flooding in Manitoba and Quebec serve as important reminders of this growing trend.

Homes built today are expected to provide a safe haven from extreme weather for the next 50 years. But these homes are built to withstand today's climate conditions, rather than those expected as the climate changes.

Climate change adaptation represents an important process that can help build homes resilient to climate change risks.

For most homebuilders, however, climate change adaptation is a new concern. Indeed, most research on climate change within the housing sector focuses on improving energy efficiency to help mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

To improve awareness, the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR), with support from Natural Resources Canada, facilitated a series of meetings with stakeholders in the Canadian home-building sector. Meetings have been held in Toronto, Halifax, Montreal, Edmonton and Vancouver, revealing challenges that homebuilders face, but also a range of practical solutions.

CLIMATE CHANGE CONFUSION

Homebuilders have a great deal of expertise in building homes designed to withstand local weather conditions. That said, translating the local or regional impacts of climate change into decision-useful data and practices that builders can employ to make homes more resilient represents a significant challenge. Information on the materials, installation and costs of building practices that are most effective at improving resiliency to climate change has yet to be developed or communicated to the industry in any comprehensive way.

NO MARKET FOR ADAPTATION

Many homebuilders expressed concern that the added construction costs involved in adaptation represent a competitive disadvantage. Should they try to pass the cost onto the consumer, other builders could simply offer cheaper homes.

This concern is, in part, generated by a lack of awareness among homeowners regarding the economic benefits of investing in adaptation. Most homeowners see climate change as a long-term concern and are predisposed towards investments in aesthetics, not resilient building design.

Even if consumers were willing to invest in adaptation, builders expressed concern that they could be held liable for repairs associated with new building practices and that they did not have the capacity to train subcontractors on new design and building methods.

ADAPTATION THROUGH THE CODE

Some stakeholders suggested that mandating new builds to integrate resilient design and building practices through the building code could establish a market for adaptation. This approach would level the playing field for all home-builders, avoiding any one builder suffering a competitive disadvantage.

The building code provides prescriptive guidance on different building practices based on weather "loads and values" that assume the past climate will be representative of the future. For the code to promote adaptation, future weather scenarios and climate loads would need to be incorporated.

Experts at our meetings agreed that there is a great deal of uncertainty over how to integrate future weather conditions into the code.

THE PATH FORWARD

Despite these challenges, stakeholders also identified a range of practical solutions that could help establish a market for adaptation through the building code. Dialogue among the building scientists, climate experts, the insurance industry and homebuilders represent a critical first step.

Many of the most significant sources of risk for new homes identified by climate scientists (such as an increase in extreme wind events) and potential solutions developed by building scientists (such as the installation of high-wind straps) have not been discussed with builders. This is unfortunate because builders can offer important expertise on the costs, materials and training necessary to implement these resilient building practices.

Homebuilders agreed that such dialogue could help facilitate a voluntary program that encourages builders to construct "demonstration homes" that test and integrate climate change adaptation into new home builds.

The idea for this approach is based on the EnergyStar program that proved successful in spreading energy-efficiency building practices throughout the sector. In 2012, many of these energy-efficiency practices were incorporated into the Ontario Building Code.

ICLR is currently working with the Ontario Home Builder's Association, building scientists from the University of Western Ontario's Insurance Lab for Better Homes, and the insurance sector to develop a set of building practices that can be tested through demonstration homes. This effort is designed to help build momentum around the use of adaptation in new home builds, and eventually in the building code.

This work represents the first formal effort to integrate adaptation into new home builds so that they continue to provide a safe haven from extreme weather throughout their life span.

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Jason Thistlethwaite, Director, Climate Change Adaptation Project
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