Earlier this month, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) unveiled its new draft Green Building Policy, developed in part to streamline the permit process at municipal hall and cut down on lengthy approval times.
But Bob Deeks, owner of the award-winning building firm, RDC Fine Homes, has his doubts. “That would be a miracle,” he said. “The permitting and development permit process in Whistler is a disaster. When you compare it to other jurisdictions as an average against the best, it’s unimaginable.”
Whistler’s municipal hall has long been known in construction circles for its cautious approach to permitting, and the new Green Building Policy (GBP) is meant to improve on approval times by streamlining various development criteria checklists into one comprehensive list for buildings subject to rezoning.
“The GBP is administered at the rezoning stage of the development permit process and would only apply at the building permit stage for very large homes. For projects requiring only a development permit or building permit, with no rezoning, the requirement is simply to outline an approach to sustainability,” said a municipal spokesperson, in an email.
An update to the RMOW’s existing policy from 2008, the new policy is “not a departure from how municipal hall administers the existing GBP,” the spokesperson went on. “The update was designed to align the policy with new standards, technologies, codes and municipal goals. It is also meant to simplify the review process and make the policy more performance-based, less prescriptive.”
As of Aug. 23, the RMOW said there are 59 development permits in process, which includes both active applications and “those where the applicant has temporarily stopped pursuing the permit for various reasons.”
Handling that workload are five core staff, with a sixth on the way, as well as an additional four support staff, if needed.
Development permits currently take three to six weeks to be assigned a file manager, the RMOW said, and processing times vary based on a number of factors, including the completeness of the application, the complexity of what is being proposed, and the responsiveness of the proponent.
In the building department, which counts four plan checkers and a plumbing inspector, plus one part-time and two full-time building inspectors, there have been 524 building permit applications this year, plus 417 requests for property information. The RMOW said the initial review process for both single-family and commercial/multi-family permits is approximately 16 weeks, and four weeks for plumbing.
For minor renovations, Deeks said permits in the City of Kelowna can be turned around in just days, while homeowners in Whistler can wait as long as eight months to get the greenlight.
Of course, the RMOW has had to contend with its own set of external pressures as well. Demand for home renos exploded in the pandemic, adding to a permitting backlog at municipal hall that was only worsened by staff shortages, a series of complex and time-consuming land-use contract terminations mandated by the province, and a cyberattack last spring that took municipal services offline, reverting the permitting process back to pen and paper. (The RMOW continues to work on fully digitizing its building permit application process.)
The lengthy processing times are enough that longtime builder and chair of the Whistler Development Corp. Eric Martin believes it could incentivize owners to skip the permitting process altogether.
“You know what? I’m sure it is, especially on minor projects,” he said. “Are people going to wait six, seven, eight months for a permit?”
Along with cutting down on approval times, the GBP sets new sustainability performance requirements and guidelines for buildings in the resort. New developments necessitating rezoning, for instance, will be subject to efficiency standards that go a level beyond the current BC Energy Step Code requirements, which will be codified in the RMOW’s Building and Plumbing Bylaw.
Martin argued the added layer makes it even tougher for builders in what is already a challenging and costly construction climate due to a number of factors, from staff shortages to supply-chain disruptions and rising inflation.
“I keep hearing, and I’m hoping I hear it correctly, that the No. 1 issue here in Whistler is unaffordability. Everything we’re doing here is making building more expensive. That’s a huge concern to me,” he said.
While an advocate for sustainable design, Martin questioned whether B.C. has done its homework when it comes to understanding the long-term implications of shifting its construction industry to ever-increasing green standards through the Step Code.
“We’ve done it so fast, we don’t know what the effect on livability is, environmentally, and so on,” posited Martin. “Are we spending a whole bunch of money just for limited benefit? Could we spend the money better off somewhere else? For example, some of the materials we’re talking about using, what’s the energy component to produce those materials? What’s the net cost? I just think on the research side, we just don’t do enough. It’s too politicized.”
Edgar Dearden, owner of sustainable home building company GNAR Inc., disagrees that upping the environmental standards on home builds would be more costly in the long run.
“I’ve dug into the budget on a recent project and the material costs of insulation was one or two per cent of the total construction cost. Insulation is cheap. What costs a lot is building complexity, and if you look around Whistler, there are a lot of complex buildings,” he said. “People just love to point to insulation and airtightness as a cost, but they don’t identify that the geometry of the building costs multiples more than insulation and airtightness will ever cost.”
For his part, Dearden mostly liked what he saw in Whistler’s new GBP, although he wants the policy to be applied to more than just development rezonings and large-scale building permits. He’d also be in favour of the RMOW raising its green-building requirements to more closely align with Passive House principles, a high-performance approach to construction that consumes up to 90 per cent less heating and cooling energy than conventional buildings.
“I wish that we could just move rapidly on these things,” he said. “When climate change turns us into a hot house and we won’t have skiing anymore, which is why we’re all here, why are we falling behind all these other municipalities just down the road?”