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Q&A with Vincent Tong, CEO of BC Housing

November 21, 2022

Vincent Tong is the acting CEO for BC Housing, a trusted leader and partner in sustainable housing solutions for British Columbians. Its mission is to make a positive difference in people’s lives and communities through safe, affordable and quality housing. 

We sat down with Vincent to talk about the ways in which BC Housing is addressing climate change and its disproportionate impact on marginalized people and those living in poverty. BC Housing has been focused on climate adaptation and resilience for many years. In May 2021, the group adopted a new framework aimed at finding fresh, systemic solutions for creating equitable, inclusive, sustainable and resilient housing to meet the needs of a changing world.

Here Vincent shares with us the framework’s strategy objectives, as well as BC Housing’s Mobilizing Building Adaptation and Resilience (MBAR) initiative, a multi-year, multi- stakeholder knowledge- and capacity-building project focused on ensuring buildings remain comfortable, safe and resilient in light of extreme weather conditions.

Q. Why is it important to be talking about climate change?

Much like California, British Columbia is experiencing an increasing frequency of extreme weather events. These events have underscored the disproportionate impact that climate change has on marginalized people and those living in poverty.

The heat dome in June 2021 brought temperatures to 36°F above normal and broke all time heat records across British Columbia. The BC Coroners Service reported 619 heat-related deaths between June 25 and July 1, 2021, making this the deadliest weather event in Canadian history. Many of these deaths occurred in social and supportive housing.  On June 29, 2021, the Village of Lytton, B.C. saw the hottest temperature ever recorded in Canada at 121° F. The following day, the Village was engulfed in flames and burned to the ground.

Just a few months later, major floods caused five deaths, devastating mudslides, and flooded homes, farms and businesses. The Insurance Bureau of Canada estimated that the flooding cost at least $450 million CDN in insured damage – not including damage to infrastructure – making it the costliest natural disaster in British Columbia history.

Q. How is BC Housing addressing climate change?

While the events of 2021 were extreme and unprecedented, BC Housing has been focused on climate adaptation and resilience for many years. In fact, we highlighted extreme heat, flooding and wildfires as hazards in our 2017 Climate Adaptation Framework. The framework was developed to align with our 2017/2018 Livegreen Sustainability Plan which set out BC Housing’s performance targets for sustainability.

In May of 2021, BC Housing adopted a new framework called the Sustainability and Resilience Strategy Framework upon which we will build a new sustainability and resilience strategy. The framework aims to find fresh, systemic solutions and create new opportunities for equitable, inclusive, sustainable, and resilient housing that meets the needs of our changing world. It has four objectives:

  1. Advance sustainable, low-carbon, innovative and resilient buildings that promote equity, inclusivity and reconciliation, foster communities, and perform well over time.
  2. Actively support the community housing sector in developing their capacity to build and manage safe, healthy, affordable, low carbon and resilient housing.
  3. In alignment with BC’s 2019 Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, BC Housing will emphasize Indigenous people’s rights to live in dignity, to maintain and strengthen Indigenous institutions, cultures, and traditions and to pursue self-determined housing. This will include prioritizing high quality, low carbon, resilient, culturally appropriate, and affordable housing that is in keeping with Indigenous needs and aspirations.
  4. Integrate equity, inclusion, low carbon resilience, and sustainability into BC Housing’s programs, policies, and business practices.

We are also focusing our work on climate mitigation, adaptation and resilience through our development and asset strategies, research initiatives, and operations. Regarding mitigation, we measure, reduce and offset our greenhouse gas emissions that mostly come from heating homes, hot water and electricity on an annual basis through our Climate Change Accountability Report.

Building on new practices and measures identified through research, we regularly update our Design Guidelines and Construction Standards so that we can actively build more resilient buildings. We’ve reduced our greenhouse gas emissions from buildings by 15% (since 2010), while adding about a hundred new buildings. Our new buildings are meeting high energy efficiency standards and about 50 of them are LEED Gold certified.  I am also proud to say that we have been carbon neutral since 2010.

With respect to existing buildings, we are identifying which passive and active cooling measures we can introduce. Simple measures such as applying window film has seen some success in reducing indoor temperatures for residents. We are also looking at building in more active cooling, such as heat pumps where possible.

Q. Tell us about MBAR and the impact it’s having on housing development.

The Mobilizing Building Adaptation and Resilience initiative, otherwise known as MBAR, is a multi-year, multi-stakeholder knowledge and capacity building project led by BC Housing, with participation and contribution from over 30 organizations, including national, provincial, and local agencies, and industry partners.

MBAR helps people protect their homes and buildings in the face of climate change. The initiative provides research to evaluate options, inform decisions and reduce barriers for pilot projects across B.C. MBAR research generates shared knowledge that creates tools, guides, templates, videos and training curricula. All this work, and the work of our partners ensures that buildings remain comfortable, safe, and resilient even with heavier rainfall, hotter summers, wildfires, flooding, and windstorms.

In the last few years, the BC Housing Research Centre has published a series of MBAR Design Discussion Primers, design guidance (and webinars) on overheating, air quality, flooding and earthquake topics, and launched a Climate-Ready Housing Design Guide which can be used to inform procurement specifications. BC Housing, as a key developer of housing, has also incorporated some of this knowledge into our own housing development standards.

Vienna House is a great example of MBAR in action. Vienna House is a proposed, near zero-emissions affordable housing project in East Vancouver. As part of the project, BC Housing applied the Integrated Building Adaptation and Mitigation Assessment framework, developed through MBAR, to ensure the project effectively integrates both climate mitigation and adaptation considerations. The team developed strategies to increase the capacity of the building to absorb external climate stresses, retain function, reduce risk, and enable occupants and systems to persist through disasters and other unexpected events.

Q. What are some of the trends you are seeing in sustainable construction?

We are seeing a big shift in the use of codes and regulations to ensure sustainable construction. Codes across Canada are beginning to integrate climate resilient design considerations. That said, it will take time for the industry to learn how to build to these new standards.

Introduced in 2017, the BC Energy Step Code presents regulatory steps over a 15-year period to result in construction in B.C. being net-zero ready by 2032. We are now one-third of the way there, and in the next 10 years we will see an increase in homes being net-zero energy ready. BC Housing has been a leader both in building to the higher steps of the Energy Step Code and in instigating a wide range of research, pilots and education to support adoption by industry

Finally, some other trends we are noticing are how to minimize embodied carbon and the disposal of old building materials to make demolition and disassembly more sustainable. We are also beginning to see recognition in the benefits of nature to humans and how to incorporate biodiversity into building design.

Q. What are the challenges and opportunities you are seeing in reducing our carbon footprint?

BC Housing has a mandate to develop education for the residential construction industry and we do so on the topic of climate adaptation and resilience. Our research centre also produces guides available to the public on how to build for greater energy efficiency and lower carbon. Research looking at windows, resident well-being, indoor temperature, and air quality highlight our commitment to not only good building, but also to our residents and residents of other housing providers across the province.

We see real potential with rapidly evolving building standards. The BC Energy Step Code, for example, consists of a series of steps, representing increasing levels of energy-efficiency performance. In 2023, parts of the BC Energy Step Code will become minimum requirements in the BC Building Code. By gradually adopting one or more steps of the standard, local governments can increase building performance requirements in their communities.

Q. What are you doing to support marginalized communities in the face of climate change?

As an affordable housing agency, BC Housing knows that systemic barriers continue to impact Indigenous and Black people, and other equity deserving groups (i.e., racialized groups, 2SLGBTQIA+ people, people with disabilities and disabled people, and those with self-identified barriers to access). These groups are disproportionately represented in homelessness and low-income communities. We understand that societal and financial injustices caused by racism and poverty are perpetuated within our society and institutions. Challenges to equity include worsening economic inequality, unemployment, housing affordability, homelessness, and increasing impacts of climate change.

Racial justice and Reconciliation are linked to healthier, equitable communities – BC Housing strives to provide safe, affordable housing to those in need. We also work to provide supports to residents impacted by climate change.

BC Housing embedded our commitment to advance equity in our new Sustainability and Resilience Strategy. We are also conducting a deep equity analysis of our operations, programs, policies, strategies, methods, and measures. Through our Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging, we are working with leadership, staff, and partners to integrate equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging principles into all the work we do.