November 4, 2021

The Climate Crisis is Here. Canada’s Housing Stock Needs to Reflect That

An image of a train hurtling by a city

by Evergreen

By Sophie Guilbault, Manager, Partnerships Development, Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction.

The Housing Supply Challenge, delivered by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, invites applicants to propose solutions that will reduce or remove barriers to new housing supply. Evergreen supports applicants of the Housing Supply Challenge by providing guidance, mentorship, and resources needed to develop and improve their submission.

Evergreen is asking experts from the housing sector across Canada to share their experiences and highlight some key barriers to new housing supply.

Sophie Guilbault, Manager of Partnerships Development at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction in Toronto discusses how housing needs to adapt to reflect extreme weather events.

The High Cost of Climate Change

In 2020, the Insurance Bureau of Canada reported paying out 2.4 billion dollars in insured damage, the fourth most expensive year in recorded history. Severe weather events affected vast swathes of the country, from flooding in Fort McMurray to rainstorms in British Columbia to destructive winds in Ontario. Recent months also brought significant losses with events such as the Barrie-and-area tornado ($100 million insured losses) and the British Columbia Wildfire ($77 million insured losses). Beyond the economic impact associated with rebuilding, these events can severely impact local businesses and public infrastructure.

Eight of the 10 highest loss years on record occurred in the last decade, and things are expected to get worse under future climate conditions. All residents of Canada, not just those living in affected areas, are paying that price through contributions to the Disaster Assistance Program.

As Canada tackles the housing supply crisis, it’s important to think about not just how to provide more housing stock, but also how it will be designed and built to better withstand extreme weather events. We can enhance climate resilience more broadly for Canadian communities through thoughtful land use planning and well-constructed housing stock. Cities will play an instrumental role in making this happen, but a concerted effort from a wide range of stakeholders such as researchers and academics, homeowners, developers, builders and all levels of government will be needed to advance adaptation in a comprehensive manner across all sectors and ensure long-term results. Ultimately, resilient communities, effective building codes and knowledgeable individuals are the best ways to prevent excessive losses from natural hazards.

Working With Cities

The Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR) is a world-class centre for multi-disciplinary disaster prevention research and communication. We develop scientific knowledge and champion implementation of solutions to make Canadians and their homes resilient to loss from natural hazards. Through our research, we identify and support sustained actions by communities, homeowners, businesses, governments and others that improves society’s capacity to adapt to, anticipate, mitigate, withstand and recover from natural hazards.

As the Manager of Partnership Development, I work with various adaptation stakeholders to promote the implementation of adaptation initiatives with a focus on municipal partnerships that foster resilience at the local level. I’ve had the opportunity to showcase the leadership that many communities have shown in adapting to various extreme weather events such as extreme rainfall, heat waves and severe wildfires. Our reports have shown that Canadian communities are adapting to various risks in innovative ways with the use of strategies such as local by-laws, land use planning tools and incentive programs. Local governments have shown on numerous occasions how strong collaborations with various stakeholders can lead to the successful planning and implementation of adaptation measures in their communities.

Beyond the work that is happening at the local level, it is crucial to ensure that provincial and national building codes include provisions to enhance the performance of Canadian homes when faced with extreme weather events. Building codes have long existed to keep people safe from death or injury—think mandated fire doors in commercial buildings that would slow down the progression of a fire. An incredible amount of research has been accomplished to identify specific areas where small changes in construction practices could significantly improve building performance. While many changes have been adopted and are under review in provincial codes across the country, the change that happens at the building code level is slow, and can often be seen as tedious, but remains an important part of the process.

Working With People

While changes in building codes can allow for the construction of stronger homes, the largest proportion of the Canadian housing stock is composed of existing homes. While it isn’t possible to rebuild these homes to current construction standards, there are still steps people can take to adapt and retrofit their homes. ICLR’s library disseminates booklets for homeowners, outlining best practices that can be taken to better protect housing from natural disasters. The Cities Adapt series of reports also highlights different strategies cities across Canada have used to effectively implement these changes while successfully collaborating with the local population.

Quebec City, for example, launched a program in 2005 in which they reached out to private homes in a neighbourhood that was at a high risk for flooding. The neighbourhood was mostly developed at the beginning of the last century, with many houses having gutters that connected to the foundation drain. This meant roof rainwater would enter the combined sewer system, overloading it during storms and causing destructive flooding. Quebec City sent letters to these households offering to cover the cost of downspout disconnection. Only one quarter of homeowners agreed to participate. It was only after a persistent public awareness campaign that required seven letters and two brochures before 100% compliance was achieved. A similar successful downspout disconnection programs was put into practice in Toronto.

Housing and the Impact on Health

Extreme heat poses a different type of threat than other climate risks since it impacts the inhabitants of a building as opposed to the building itself. Extreme heat events can have severe effects on the health of the occupants of the building, especially young children, the elderly, and people with pre-existing health conditions.

There are many things we can do to build better housing as we face increasingly hotter summers. This applies to how the building and its envelope are designed, as well as its surrounding environment. For example, if you have a southwest facing window that gets a lot of sun, then perhaps you can have a tree close by that will still let daylight in through the winter, but will absorb some of the heat on hot summer days. Some of these solutions can be handled by going through a checklist of elements—is the house well ventilated, do the windows open, is there shade nearby—but a lot of it comes down to thinking about how we build communities as a whole. How much of the surrounding area is dark paved surfaces, as opposed to trees and greenery? How will the internal thermal comfort of a building be affected by nearby bodies of water, or a wind corridor? When it comes to building new supply, these are all things that should be considered to make the house safer, more resilient, more sustainable, and longer lasting.

Providing a sufficient housing supply to provide homes for all Canadians is certainly of the utmost importance, but it is equally important to reflect on how these new buildings should be built. If our housing supply keeps getting damaged over time by extreme weather events, we won’t be in a better position. If we are going to invest in our communities, it’s important to do it in a way that will increase sustainable supply. When we build housing properly in a manner that truly considers current and future climate conditions, we have the potential to really change how people live, the risks they face, and how they can withstand various climate risks.

As told to Evergreen

Sophie is the Manager of Partnership Development at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction (ICLR). Through her work at ICLR, she has developed a strong expertise in municipal adaptation to climate change, including the publication of 100 case studies describing communities successfully adapting to extreme weather events. She holds degrees in architecture (B.Arch. & M. Arch.) from Laval University as well as a graduate degree (M.Sc.) in disaster management from Tulane University.

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