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Idea #6: Fix the Building Code

Two environmentalists say current rules are a barrier to new thinking.

By Tom Barrett and Andrew MacLeod 24 Dec 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Barrett is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief in Victoria.

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Bright ideas for 2008.

[Editor's note: Rather than look back over the year that was, the Tyee is offering its readers a dozen New Ideas for the New Year. We'll publish a new one every weekday from now through Jan. 1. They're textbook cases of thinking outside the box, all of them from people trying to make B.C. a better place to live. Later in January we'll be asking you to suggest your own new ideas for 2008, and will publish a selection.]

Donna Morton admits that the idea of volunteering to pay more taxes goes against popular wisdom.

But, she says, some of her neighbours in the rural Cowichan Valley are "just chomping at the bit to pay higher taxes" -- if the money helps encourage sustainable building practices and technology.

"I think that increasingly there's a category of citizens that are actually willing to pay more if they feel like it's buying them the freedom to innovate, particularly along green lines," Morton says.

Morton, the co-founder and executive director of the Centre for Integral Economics, has a tax plan that she thinks will allow British Columbians to build more sustainably.

Currently, things like grey water recycling and composting toilets are often prohibited or restricted by local regulations or the B.C. Building Code. That means that thousands of British Columbians in places like the southern Island and the Gulf Islands are being turned into "outlaws" when they try to build sustainably, Morton told the Tyee.

"Everything you want to do that's ecological, you're either penalized or told you can't," she said. "There are constant disincentives."

Pay-as-you-innovate

Municipalities say they would like to allow more green practices, but they can't afford to pay inspectors to make sure that people aren't, for example, pouring bleach into their grey water systems.

That's where Morton's idea comes in.

"Homeowners would pay an extra fee in order to be monitored over time," she says. "The municipality... would basically say, 'If it's unproven or untested, we're going to let you take some risks but we're going to also capture revenues to pay for the monitoring -- and over time, we'll know that this works.' "

The plan is aimed at rural areas, where taxes are currently very low.

"On a 16-acre plot of bare land, your taxes are really nominal," Morton says. "They're $500 a year. So what we're saying is, rather than force people into conventional building where they put in a septic system and they build a great big house, what if we incentivized smaller building and more kind-of-edgy green building technologies?

For a couple of thousand dollars a year, a rural dweller could have someone from the local regional district come by regularly and monitor groundwater and soil contamination levels, Morton says.

She says authorities could monitor for a set time, after which the homeowner would receive a permit. If the homeowner sells the property, the permit would expire and monitoring would start again.

Morton, who is on the environment committee of the Cowichan Valley Regional District, hopes to get a pilot project going in the area in the coming year.

As far as she knows, the idea hasn't been tried anywhere else.

No room for creativity

Activist and builder Ingmar Lee would scrap the building code altogether to make it easier for people to build their own homes and express their creativity.

He estimates he can build a 1,000 square foot house for about $10,000, thanks to the "tsunami" of scavengeable material that's available. Cedar off the beach makes great shakes for siding. There are places you find slate for free to use on a roof, he says. Torn-down houses provide cut lumber in sizes and qualities that can no longer be bought.

"There's nothing more fun than building your own house," he says, arguing what he builds will be stronger than what the code requires. "I believe it will last a thousand years."

And even when people follow the building code, there's little guarantee the structure will be sound, as thousands of British Columbians living in leaky condos can attest. Worse, he says, the code dictates the flavour of our neighbourhoods.

"You end up with these uniform, unimaginative, conformist, box neighbourhoods," he says. "People just get so set in their ways. When they drive into [a subdivision], a house has to look a certain way. To me these people are just getting shafted because they're forced into these limited options."

A need for safeguards

Morton says she understands why regulations are the way they are.

"I don't want my next door neighbour putting in a grey water system and using Drano. Septic systems were built for a reason. They were expecting that people put really nasty toxic chemicals into their sinks.

"I totally understand the rationale for wanting there to be good standards. But I also think that today there's a lot of people choosing to live differently and choosing to make very different decisions about not using toxic materials and wanting to recycle bathwater and sink water and not end up having it treated as toxic waste."

Economic tools like voluntary taxes can be used to encourage such practices, she says.

"Let's let all the unconventional green builders in our community come out of the closet and let's turn them, instead of being outlaws, into leading examples in our community.

"I think a voluntary tax program could be a quantum leap toward doing that."

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