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Air conditioning coming soon: Cooling to be mandatory in new homes in Vancouver

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Life in Vancouver is about to get a little cooler, thanks to a new requirement tucked into a council-approved report on bylaw and policy updates.

City council approved earlier this week an omnibus climate emergency building report, recommendations in which included that new buildings must have built-in air conditioning.

That policy comes into effect starting in January 2025, and is one of several changes to the city's building bylaw including reductions in energy and carbon emissions in residential and commercial buildings.

The "cooling requirement" is only for residential units in Part 3 buildings, which in B.C. means they're taller than three storeys or exceed 600 square metres (6,458 square feet) in area.

These buildings will have to be "served by active mechanical cooling" capable of keeping the building at 26 C or cooler when windows are closed, those behind the report said.

The goal, they wrote, is to keep residents of multi-family homes safe from overheating.

“I think heat and smoke, unfortunately, we are going to be seeing that more frequently and severely as time goes on,” said Sean Pander, the green building manager for the City of Vancouver.

"We need to start protecting our residents against these changes,” he continued.

The policy approval comes just weeks before the anniversary of a so-called "heat dome," an environmental phenomenon that saw temperatures soaring past 40 C in a province where many do not have air conditioning, unlike some places like Ontario where these rules are already in place.

Hundreds of people died in B.C. during days of extreme heat last year, and climate experts warn the heat dome likely wasn't an isolated event.

"One of the people in my building died in the heat dome. And a friend of mine, a person in her building died because of the heat dome. So, AC is really important in the coming years,” said Vancouver city councillor Jean Swanson.

Jennifer Baumbusch, an associate professor of nursing at UBC, said the policy is a good first step, but the changes aren’t happening soon enough.

"People want to know what's happening this summer. What help is coming this summer? What's being done to prepare for what we know is coming this summer with another heat dome potentially or heat waves?” she said. “I think there's an urgency here that's not being addressed."

The city said there are plenty of incentives for homeowners to install heat pumps, which can cool their homes this summer, but multi-family buildings are a challenge.

"We’re a little bit further behind on introducing heat pumps in the multi-family building space, and we're just beginning programs,” said Pander.

He added that the city is working with provincial partners to install more air conditioning units in residential buildings, but installation won’t begin until later this year.

According to the city's report, the majority of buildings currently being developed are already incorporating some kind of air conditioning.

It won't be cheap. City staff cited a study that estimated the lowest cost of these types of systems would still be $8 to $10 per square foot, and most designs cost more than that.

Staff members wrote that prices could drop in the years before the requirement is in place as technology advances.

They suggested those behind new construction should expect a budget increase of up to 3.5 per cent, and that they should try to incorporate cooling systems with heating to save money.

Staff said developers reported that their own studies showed "significantly higher" prices.

The rules coming into effect in three years will only apply to new builds, so owners and renters of apartments in pre-existing buildings will have to find their own solutions. 

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