Wood-frame Building Changes Create Opportunity And Controversy

Wood Frame ConstructionA change to Ontario’s Building Code means wood frame buildings can now be built six storeys high, up from the previous limit of four storeys. The move follows similar changes in British Columbia and Quebec, and Alberta may soon follow. The Ontario government says the new regulations “can help make building a home more affordable and support more attractive, pedestrian-oriented buildings that enhance streetscapes.” It’s also hoping to give the forest industry in Northern Ontario a boost.

The province says that most European Union and several North American jurisdictions allow six-storey wood-frame buildings, and that more than 50 such buildings have been constructed in B.C. since it changed its building code in 2009.

The Canadian Wood Council (CWC) says five- and six-storey wood buildings cost up to 15 per cent less to build than comparable buildings made of alternative materials. They can be built in urban infill applications where it was previously too expensive to develop a similar-size project. The CWC says wood buildings can be built faster because construction takes place year-round and developers can take advantage of a large pool of tradespeople who are used to working with wood products.

“Wood is the only major building material that grows naturally and is capable of being regenerated in a human-life time frame,” says the CWC. “In addition, this country now boasts an enviable record with regard to forest use. Canada has more certified forest area than any other country in the world and our forest management practices — including laws which ensure harvesting areas are promptly regenerated — means that our rate of deforestation is virtually zero.”

The Ontario code changes have been under attack from the steel and concrete industries. The Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association (CCMPA) took out full-page newspaper ads to question whether the new buildings will be safe and sustainable. It raised questions about fire safety, termites, insurance issues and the ill-effects of moisture on wood.

“There are significant safety issues, public and private liability and other consequences, especially when moving too quickly on potential code changes,” says a news release by the Ontario Coalition for Fair Construction Practices, which includes concrete and steel producers. It cites concerns about wood-frame buildings that have burned while still under construction before sprinklers were operational. “The tragic loss of senior citizens in January 2014 demonstrates how dangerous these buildings can be, and how many lives can be put at risk as a result,” says the coalition.

Ontario says its new safety regulations are “the most rigorous in Canada. They include measures that were not previously required in four-storey buildings, including automatic sprinklers and sprinklers on all balconies more than 610 mm deep; a requirement for exterior cladding and roof covering to be non-combustible or combustion-resistant; and stricter rules regarding fire-resistant exit stairwells and higher seismic loads.

However, the rules require only 10 per cent of the building perimeter to be within 15 meters of a fire safety access route. The National Building Code requires 25 per cent.

The Cement Association of Canada says “a developer could build a structure that is 19 meters wide facing one street and 77 meters deep, with no requirement for fire access on the sides and back of the building. This is being done primarily to accommodate the structure of Toronto lots and could be particularly dangerous in the case of infill housing, as most of the gas and other mechanical connections tend to be located at the side or rear of the building where they would be inaccessible to firefighting personnel.”

It says having taller wood-frame buildings “in close proximity to older buildings that don’t meet the current building code could be a recipe for disaster.”

The CWC says the newspaper ads by the CCMPA were “cheap shots” from an industry worried about competition. It points to a report released by the University of Fraser Valley, which analyzed almost 2,000 fires and reported that “the fire safety of buildings has more to do with effective fire safety systems, such as working smoke alarms and complete automatic sprinkler protection, than with their construction materials.”

Ontario’s various ministries are also working together to develop guidelines for site fire safety during the construction of five- and six-storey buildings.

Richard Ryall, president of the Residential Construction Council of Ontario, told The Globe and Mail that the new regulations are “a real game-changer.” He says it will increase the supply of apartment rentals and condos and it offers “tremendous opportunity” for mid-rise commercial buildings that combine multiresidential, retail and professional offices.

Written by Jim Adair