One small union can make a massive difference. That's what recently published research papers on the BC Insulators Local 118's efforts to promote a major climate initiative in the construction industry indicate.
"We specialize in the protection, storage and transfer of energy," explained Lee Loftus, business manager for the union. "That feeds into awareness as well as action on climate change."
The two papers are part of a series being produced for the Adapting Canadian Work and Workplaces (ACW) Built Environment Working Group.
According to the ACW, buildings account for between 35 per cent and 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.
Over the years, the BC Insulators have campaigned to encourage municipalities in B.C. to require higher insulation standards in their building requirements and procurement contract tenders.
Local 118 represents unionized skilled insulators who have a trades qualification and have completed a four-year apprenticeship in HVAC systems and related building insulation methods.
The paper, authored by researchers at Simon Fraser University, described the B.C. industry as a "competitive, low bid culture that has failed to implement well established, low carbon construction methods" with only a small segment attempting to incorporate climate change objectives into its projects.
"The mainstream industry remains committed to conventional building approaches in which quality is sacrificed to minimize labour and material costs," write the authors. "To the extent that the industry has addressed climate issues, its activities have largely focused on building new, boutique projects for particular market niches involving purchasers wanting to demonstrate their climate commitment."
To address the absence of government and industry leadership in raising standards for mechanical insulation (MI), the union commissioned a major independently-researched technical study on the economic and climate change benefits of state-of-the-art insulation on HVAC systems.
The study, Pipes Need Jackets, Too, documented the significant contribution improved MI could make to meeting the province's ambitious climate change objectives while achieving long-term energy savings for building owners.
Local 118 provided the study to the provincial government, local municipalities and the construction industry. It also lobbied governments to raise standards in municipal and provincial building codes and implement more rigorous inspections of HVAC installations.
According to the research, to address the lack of clarity and absence of consensus within the industry about the technical requirements of state-of-the-art MI, the union then funded the development of a more detailed manual on best practices. The purpose was to provide contractors with clear instructions on how to install MI properly.
The union also developed an extensive list of specific recommendations on raising the outdated and inadequate standards of provincial and municipal building codes to align them with industry best practices.
To address the need to provide workers with a more comprehensive understanding of climate issues, the union also developed a new "green awareness" course for the provincial apprenticeship program that adds climate literacy to the curriculum.
"Not only did we find that the industry didn't understand mechanical insulation, some of our workers that had been doing it their whole life didn't understand," said Loftus.
This is now incorporated as a required foundational course for all first-year insulation apprentices studying in B.C.'s public trades colleges.
To deal with the absence of qualified inspectors, the union initiated an MI inspector training program for the industry. The services of certified graduates from this program are now being offered to both government and the private sector to evaluate the quality of installations in commercial and industrial buildings.
Local 118 has expanded its climate campaign through numerous presentations at trade shows, conferences and government and industry forums both in Canada and the U.S. It has consciously built collaborative relationships with a number of B.C.'s major environmental NGOs who the union sees as key allies in its campaign to 'green' the province's building industry, added Loftus.
He also noted that communicating what insulators do, and its importance for combatting climate change, has been huge for recruiting young people.
"They realize that they are part of the solution to climate change issues and that it is meaningful work," Loftus said. "At the end of the work week they can say they have done more than most of their friends will ever do for greenhouse gases."
The authors of the report concluded that the union's goals were ambitious for a small organization, but led to change.
"It has sought to change the culture of the construction industry in B.C. by shifting its focus from a narrow, short-term, lowest-cost approach to one which recognizes the importance of reducing energy use over the lifecycle of new and refurbished buildings," the authors state. "Its approach explicitly links its members' work with the achievement of key climate change objectives. In the process the BC Insulators provides an example of how one small union, with the support of its members, has attempted to 'green' the culture of the industry in which it operates."