Canada’s construction system - The context for model codes

Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes

First edition 2011, updated in 2018

The purpose of this document is to foster understanding of the place of building, fire, energy and plumbing codes in the construction and operation of buildings and houses in Canada.

Construction is a complex service and manufacturing industry, involving thousands of different components that are assembled into products and systems by a large number of workers both on and off site. Basic safety, health, accessibility, energy efficiency and building protection features are addressed in construction codes.

However, construction is primarily a market activity, the quality of whose products reflects the interplay of costs, time, skill, knowledge, and the availability of materials.

Each party involved in construction has certain responsibilities.

Owners have an overall responsibility for their projects—for determining what will be built, for meeting laws, and for choosing reputable advisors and builders.

Canadians expect certain fundamental things from their construction system:

  • basic health and safety,
  • reasonable durability/serviceability,
  • choice, and
  • value for money.

Designers have a responsibility for producing functional working drawings and specifications that comply with applicable laws and reflect the owners' requirements.

They may also perform a site review for the owner.

General contractors have a responsibility for the overall construction project, including buying, scheduling, workmanship, and management of subcontractors and suppliers.

Subcontractors have a responsibility for their portion of the work (e.g., mechanical, electrical, drywall or excavation work).

Manufacturers have a responsibility for supplying products that meet both their advertised specifications and the applicable standards.

Standards development organizations have a responsibility for producing reliable, usable standards.

The federal government funds the development of model codes through the National Research Council of Canada (NRC). This work is overseen by the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes (CCBFC).

Provinces and territories have a responsibility for adopting, through legislation, the building, fire, energy and plumbing codes to be applied in their area.

Municipalities in most areas of Canada have a responsibility for examining plans for conformance with codes, and many inspect projects for compliance. (In some areas this is done by provincial/territorial agencies. A few areas have no such public oversight.)

There are practical limitations to each of these roles because of the complexity of the construction system.

Systems to Help Determine What Should Be Built

Owners must make the basic decisions about what they want to have built to suit their needs. Owners vary dramatically in their knowledge of the construction process. They often hire designers or companies that offer design/build services to help them make those decisions.Footnote 1 Speculative developers/builders make their decisions on what to build based on their expectations of what future buyers or renters will want, as well as on technical factors related to proper design and construction. There are a number of sources of information to help make these decisions.

Manufacturers' Information

Manufacturers of new products and systems have a vested interest in providing information about their products. While manufacturers are mainly interested in highlighting the advantages of their own products, their literature can also include notes and warnings on how their products should not be used or installed in typical situations. Sales representatives help answer questions and solve problems. Some large companies have full technical departments.

In addition, there are books in which competing manufacturers' information is collected and published under standard specification headings. Many trade magazines also publish news briefs on product information and installation or design issues.


A standard is an agreed-upon, written-down set of requirements against which products and systems can be measured or compared. Standards are used for everything from product dimensions to structural design, and from labeling to sustainable forestry practices.

In Canada's National Standards System, thousands of volunteers—users, manufacturers, consumers, contractors, engineers, architects, government representatives, researchers, etc.—are involved in the writing and updating of these standards. Most work through one of the non-profit standards development organizations accredited by the Standards Council of Canada, which include Canadian General Standards Board (CGSB), CSA Group (CSA), Bureau de normalisation du Québec (BNQ), Underwriters Laboratories (UL), ULC Standards (ULC), American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM), Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI), and NSF International.

Many standards are used voluntarily by industry and buyers. Others are made mandatory when they are referenced in codes and regulations adopted by governments.

Insurance Requirements

Owners usually want to protect their construction investment with insurance coverage. Companies offering this service may have building design and construction requirements that go beyond the minimum required in codes.

Design and Best Practice Guides

Approaches to design, performance and system quality control are set out in design and best practice guides. Some of the best-known guides are published by associations and agencies working to improve the market for their members' products, and by government agencies such as Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) and NRC.

Consumer Information

Both private- and public-sector groups prepare and distribute consumer information, from "how to choose a renovation contractor" booklets to extensive technical information aimed at property managers. This consumer information is often prepared through the partnerships of groups such as industry associations, product manufacturers, retailers, utilities, financial institutions, research agencies, and government departments. In addition, there are a large number of books, magazines, sections of newspapers, television shows and Internet resources devoted to home and building topics.

Drawings and Specifications

Drawings are a graphical description of the construction work. Specifications are a written description of the work. They set out general requirements, acceptable products, equipment, installation procedures, standards of workmanship, etc. Their scale and complexity vary widely, from simple one-page lists to multi-section documents. They are very important as legal documents describing responsibilities and the quality of workmanship and materials.

Model Codes

The CCBFC oversees development of the model National Building Code of Canada (NBC), National Plumbing Code of Canada (NPC), National Energy Code of Canada for Buildings (NECB) and National Fire Code of Canada (NFC), plus other guidance documents. The NBC sets out minimum requirements addressing safety, health, accessibility, energy efficiency and building protection. The NFC addresses fire safety during the operation of facilities and buildings. The NPC deals with safe installation of potable water systems, the removal of wastewater to municipal or private sewage systems and water use efficiency. The NECB sets out acceptable requirements for the energy use of large buildings. The Canadian electrical, gas and elevator codes are also model codes, but they are produced by the CSA Group.

Model codes have no legal authority until they are adopted by a government authority with the appropriate jurisdiction. The model codes are very technical and presume that users are knowledgeable.

Provincial/Territorial Codes

Today, most provinces and territories have passed legislation adopting either the national model building, fire, energy and plumbing codes produced by the CCBFC, or variants that include provincial additions, exemptions and amendments. This legislation establishes systems of building regulation, including scope of application, enforcement powers, permits, consideration of non-standard products and systems, inspections, penalties and appeals.

Other Regulations Affecting Building

Provinces and territories have also established systems of planning and development review that affect what can be built, in which municipalities generally play a large role. Official plans establish permitted land uses, and ensure appropriate services in new subdivisions and in established areas. Planning and zoning criteria may include minimum setbacks, lot coverage, density, massing, etc. Some municipalities have architectural controls affecting the appearance of new buildings. Provinces and territories also oversee electrical and gas installations, with enforcement generally being handled by municipalities or utilities. Provinces and territories have additional regulations for elevators, boilers and pressure vessels.

Provinces, territories and municipalities require various occupancy licenses, such as liquor, care home and daycare licenses, and establish requirements that go with them.

Provincial and territorial laws relating to the environment, flood control, occupational health, safety, etc. can also affect the planning, construction and operation of buildings.

Systems for Quality Control

Once the design decisions have been made, focus shifts to construction itself. A number of systems exist to help avoid errors and to ensure the desired levels of performance and workmanship are obtained. The selection of reputable companies, site supervision and appropriate testing are essential. Construction code inspections by or on behalf of the authority having jurisdiction only provide a back-up review for those matters deemed to be in the public interest—for example, health and safety.

In-Plant Quality Control Programs

Materials suppliers and product and equipment manufacturers have their own programs to control quality and ensure their products perform as expected. The programs vary in complexity, reflecting the differences in the risk inherent in the products themselves. Reputable companies try to keep quality high to protect their reputation.

Third-Party In-Plant Testing

Many manufacturers design their production to meet published standards. This may require testing of inputs and components, and monitoring of finished products. Some manufacturers also design some products specifically to exceed minimum standards where there is a market for such products and publish related test results in the product literature.


Certification organizations are accredited to confirm that specific products, installations and systems meet published standards. Certification marks will usually appear on products in an easily visible place.


It can be difficult and expensive to prove to municipal building officials that a new product provides the performance required by codes. The Canadian Construction Materials Centre at NRC was established to assess a product's conformity to the model codes' performance expectations. Ontario has a similar assessment process for its building code.

On-Site Testing

Some products and installations require on-site testing. Concrete, for example, is usually tested during placement. Tests are performed for the owner by a third party. The more complex the building, the more testing may be recommended by the owner's consultants. For complex facilities or systems, designers may analyze testing requirements and recommend commissioning protocols on the basis of risk assessment. Some products and installations require on-site testing. Concrete, for example, is usually tested during placement. Tests are performed for the owner by a third party. The more complex the building, the more testing may be recommended by the owner's consultants. For complex facilities or systems, designers may analyze testing requirements and recommend commissioning protocols on the basis of risk assessment.

Contractors' Inspections

Contractors' own site inspections are an extremely important part of the quality control process. General contractors/builders appoint site supervisors to verify that all the work included in the contract has been completed according to the submitted drawings and specifications, either by their own employees or by subcontractors. Similarly, trade contractors oversee the work of their own employees and of subtrade contractors.

Architects' and Engineers' Review

Architects and engineers are often retained to review construction (such review is mandatory for most larger projects, depending on provincial legislation, and project size and complexity). They usually visit the site on a regular basis and review work at specific stages before it is hidden by further construction or finishes. They also advise owners on progress, identify required tests, and review test results.

Plans Evaluation and Inspections

Owners must apply to the municipal building department for the required permits and pay the required fees. Site inspections are usually part of the permit process, but only address codes' minimum safety, health, accessibility, energy efficiency and building protection requirements. In many municipalities, the fire services will also review plans, focusing specifically on fire safety issues that will arise once a building is occupied. The building will then be inspected periodically to ensure fire safety features are maintained.

Private Third-Party Inspections

Some government jurisdictions allow private third-party inspectors to do some, or all, of the work of a municipal building inspector. These inspectors must generally pass specific courses and/or be certified. Inspectors are hired by the government or by the owner of the construction project, depending on the jurisdiction.

Warranty Requirements

Some buildings, typically houses, are covered by warranty programs. These programs can require that plans be reviewed by program staff and that site inspections be made to assess conformance with program requirements.

Systems to Improve Business and Technical Knowledge

The construction industry employs many workers with various skill levels, from entry-level labourers to highly skilled trades people and specialists. There is an educational infrastructure in Canada that provides initial education appropriate for the job demands, makes ongoing short courses and updates available, and registers both firms and workers. Some provinces and territories have minimum training requirements for certified or licensed practitioners.

Training Programs

Provincial and territorial governments are responsible for administering publicly operated training programs, including apprenticeships, trades training, vocational training and licensing/certification. Community colleges offer most of the courses for initial trades qualifications. There are ongoing efforts to coordinate training and apprenticeship requirements across the country to facilitate labour mobility. Several provinces support specialized colleges for fire safety training.

Professional Architects and Engineers

Governing bodies for professional architects and engineers set training requirements across the country. To qualify for a license to practice, these professionals must complete a recognized course of study at an accredited post-secondary institution, as well as a period of internship. Specialist and updating courses are also available and are mandatory in some jurisdictions.

Other Courses

Many voluntary courses are available for workers and management in all types of trade and building firms. Some are offered through community colleges, some through associations, and some directly through manufacturers. Certain courses of study may lead to accreditation, usually on a voluntary basis, that help people show their qualification to perform the work.

Provincial, Territorial and Municipal Licensing

Requirements vary among the provinces and territories. All provinces set up self-regulating licensing bodies for architects and engineers. Quebec requires all contractors and trades people to be licensed with the Régie du bâtiment du Québec. British Columbia requires all residential builders and renovation contractors to be registered with BC Housing. Many municipalities require specific trades to be licensed in order to conduct business in their jurisdiction.

Systems to Allocate Responsibility

Basic responsibilities for construction work are established through the body of laws passed by the federal and provincial/territorial governments. In the common law jurisdictions, responsibilities are also established by court precedents. Other responsibilities are outlined in contracts. Building and safety codes acts are a fairly small part of the overall system to allocate responsibilities.

Legal Framework

Quebec's civil code makes builders, architects and engineers who have managed or inspected the work, subcontractors (for their own work) and vendors/promoters jointly liable for defects in the work for one year. For major defects, the defects liability period extends to five years from the date of completion of the work.

In the common law provinces and territories, most claims would be covered by contract law, the laws of negligence, and the statutes of limitations. The principle of "joint and several" liability means that anyone partially responsible for a construction defect can be required to pay the whole amount of the damages it caused if the other parties are unable. Statutes of limitations set the time limit for pursuing claims. Alberta's Safety Codes Act sets out roles and responsibilities for all the parties to a construction project. There is a 10-year final limitation on claims arising from construction in Alberta. British Columbia's Homeowner Protection Act sets penalties for people who build and sell homes without obtaining the required warranties.


Construction contracts vary, but are usually based on industry standards. They generally include a description of the responsibilities and the work to be done (often referencing drawings and specifications), a price, a construction schedule, warranty terms, insurances, and a description of how changes, delays and disputes will be handled.

A contract is legally binding on the parties to it.

Systems to Protect Consumers

Building projects are complex, on-site manufacturing and assembly operations, which usually face both time and budget constraints. It is usual for building projects to have minor defects that require repair or replacement. However, the limited scope of codes (safety, health, accessibility, energy efficiency, and building protection) means that they have little, if any, application to what is traditionally thought of as "consumer protection." Industry has, therefore, developed a number of ways to respond to problems, some of which have been made mandatory by governments.

Company Warranties

The standard warranty for a building project is one year from the date of substantial performance of the work. Longer warranty periods may be specified in the contract documents for certain products and portions of the work, and longer manufacturers' warranties are to be issued to the owner. Guarantees from product and equipment manufacturers vary depending on the expected life of the product.

Insured Warranties (Voluntary)

Insured or third-party warranty programs are used in the housing industry. They are required by law in some provinces, and are available on a voluntary basis in the rest of the country.

Under these programs, a third party corporation agrees to fulfill the home builder's warranty to the home buyer if the builder does not. The terms of warranty programs differ across the country, but normally include a one- or two-year full labour and materials warranty, plus coverage for major structural defects until at least the end of the fifth year. Some programs have additional coverage options available for an additional premium.

Government-Required Warranties

British Columbia (since 1999), Quebec (since 1999), and Ontario (since 1976) have legislation requiring some or all new homes to be covered by third-party warranties or insurance. The legislation establishes coverage, application, enforcement, penalties and appeals, plus criteria for provincial review of providers. The application, approach and definitions of the legislation are quite different in the three provinces.


A bond is a three-way agreement between the principal (usually the contractor), the obligee (usually the owner) and the surety company. In a performance bond, if the contractor does not perform the work outlined in the contract properly, the surety company must remedy the default. Before issuing a bond, surety companies usually review a contractor's financial resources, staff, management performance and past experience. It can be very difficult for new or smaller contractors to obtain bonds.

Property Insurance

Normal property insurance is not intended to cover defects in construction. However, it does provide protection to the owner from the loss of property in cases of fire or other disasters.

The Consumer's Responsibility

Many buyers or users of construction services, especially home buyers, do not have a full understanding of construction, business practices, and the protection they do or do not have. Some appear to believe that codes and municipal enforcement are intended to cover more than they actually do.

All buyers have a responsibility to protect their own best interests by:

  • checking into a company's reputation, experience and qualifications,
  • checking references,
  • getting legal advice before signing contracts,
  • allowing sufficient time and money for better products, careful work, and good inspections,
  • choosing appropriate insurances and warranties,
  • inspecting completed work,
  • reporting problems promptly, and
  • doing required ongoing routine maintenance.


Consumers who face problems and are unsure of their rights and obligations can consult legal specialists familiar with the construction system. Useful general information, advice and support is also available from organizations such as the Consumers' Association of Canada and BC Housing, which has also published a guide for new home buyers. Footnote 2

Systems for Recourse

Errors and Omissions Insurance

As professionals in self-regulated professions, architects and engineers are barred from limiting their liability for negligent work. As a result, together with the principle of joint and several liability, they can end up having to pay the full amount of damages if the other responsible parties are no longer available. Professional liability insurance (also known as errors and omissions insurance) can help cover their potential liabilities and is required in many provinces and territories.

Municipal Liability Insurance

Municipalities can face potential liability for negligent plans examination or inspection by their staff. Some municipalities take out commercial liability insurances, while others cover their liability through association-run programs or self-insure. Because of the principle of joint and several liability, municipalities can be drawn into disputes between other parties even when their role has been very limited.

Lawsuits, Mediation and the Courts

It can be expensive and time consuming to pursue legal rights through the courts. Sometimes, defendants do not have enough assets for a case to be worthwhile to pursue. However, legal rights and precedents have an important impact on the advice given to consumers and companies, and on how business is conducted.

In addition, more and more contracts include a provision for disputes to be settled by mediation (a faster, less adversarial process than litigation), and some provinces have begun to include mediation as the first stage in the legal process. Warranty programs often use a form of mediation (conciliation) as a first response to claims.

Systems to Respond to Problems

The vast majority of construction problems turn out to be simple matters, which can and do get fixed quickly. However, some problems are more widespread and difficult to address. This is especially true of "system" problems that are caused by the interaction of more than one product, installer, design specialty, etc. Even so, the construction system has networks and routes to identify and respond to such problems.

Problem Identification and Response

Problems and complaints are tracked on both a formal and an informal basis at various levels. They lead to product improvements and changes to buying practices and specifications.

Those that are not easily resolved get discussed in wider forums. Builders, designers and installers all discuss problems and solutions at their association meetings. Building, plumbing, energy and fire officials have similar discussions within their associations. Product associations keep track of questions and complaints to help them improve product design and features. Members of a standards-writing group may hear concerns and respond. Researchers may find they are getting a number of calls on the same issue. Warranty programs and insurers who have to pay out on claims will start doing their own investigations.

The Components of a Healthy Construction System

Good buildings require a healthy overall construction system, including:

  • a well-functioning market,
  • readily available consumer and industry information sources,
  • a legal framework for the conduct of business,
  • reliable standards and testing,
  • mandatory minimum construction codes,
  • site inspections and quality control,
  • warranties and insurances,
  • education and training,
  • systems to identify and respond to emerging problems, and
  • maintenance of safety systems.

Research, Development and Information

The Construction Research Centre at NRC has an ongoing research program on building science. The NRC Industrial Research Assistance Program helps provide access to information and support for innovation through a network of technology advisors. CMHC does extensive work to support research and development in housing. Natural Resources Canada has been a key player in work involving energy efficiency in buildings. Universities, research institutes and affected agencies, such as utility companies, also get involved. Manufacturers and product associations do a significant amount of research into product improvements, new products and applications. Business and professional associations also support research.

Fire Safety

Because of the importance of fire safety, fire codes require periodic inspection and maintenance of all fire safety systems in buildings. Although building owners are ultimately responsible for ensuring that their buildings are safe, these periodic inspections play an important role in identifying safety problems and in having them fixed.

Systems for Keeping Up to Date

In addition to formal programs of continuing education and professional development, there are several other key ways for owners and industry to keep up to date.

Trade Shows

Most consumers are familiar with home shows, which feature new products, services and design ideas aimed at the home buyer or owner wanting to renovate. Similar shows, known as trade shows, are held specifically for industry on a regular basis in Canada and around the world. Trade shows may be industry-wide or focused on an individual specialty, such as plumbing, heating or air-conditioning.

Trade Publications

Numerous trade publications serve the construction industry and its various specialized groups, including subscription-based publications, free-circulation publications supported by advertising, and newsletters issued by voluntary associations and institutes, individual companies, and industry organizations mentioned in this paper. At the consumer level, every newspaper in the country seems to include a homes section featuring new technologies, new products, demonstration projects, "how to" articles, identification and resolution of problems, and scientific reports.

Membership in Voluntary Associations

There are many voluntary-membership associations in the construction industry. Most share information among members and work cooperatively for industry improvements by offering seminars, education programs, information programs for consumers/clients, conferences, etc. Many are actively concerned with construction quality, have committees that discuss problems, and offer information sessions for members.

Please send comments on this publication to:

The Secretary
Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes
Codes Canada
National Research Council of Canada
Ottawa, ON K1A 0R6

Footnote 1

Use of professional architects and/or engineers is required by provincial/territorial law for larger and/or more complex buildings.

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Footnote 2

Buying a Home in British Columbia: A Consumer Protection Guide. BC Housing, Burnaby, 2013.

Return to footnote 2 referrer