A war of words is heating up over whether wood should be permissible as framing for six-storey buildings in next year’s National Building Code of Canada (NBC) revision.
Adding fuel to the fire is a move by the wood lobby to push provinces to pass “wood first” legislation specifying wood framed structures as the default for mid-rise public works projects where warranted.
On the one side are the Canadian Concrete and Masonry Producers Association (CCMPA) and Canadian Institute of Steel Construction (CISC). On the other is the Canadian Wood Council (CWC) and the target of verbal rocks being tossed at them in the form of press releases and other statements.
The core issue is the CWC’s push over the last few years to bring forward research showing that stick built, multi-unit residential structures, can and should be safely extended to six floors from four in the NBC, as well as its political lobbying prompting “wood first” legislation.
The CCMPA isn’t happy about it and have been furiously pumping out press releases citing the dangers of fire, rot, insects, stability in wind and earthquakes and even the risk from stray bullets to occupants.
“There’s no way I’d put one of my family members into a senior’s home built with wood,” stated Paul Hargest, CCMPA president. “It’s not safe.”
For its part, the CWC has shrugged off the attacks, saying they’ve simply followed a lengthy process and brought extensive research to the table to buttress its arguments. The CWC also believes that change and upgrade is inherent in the setting and management of any standard, especially the building code which has clearly evolved over time to where it is today.
Michael Giroux, president of the CWC, said wood is 10 to 15 per cent more economical for up to six floors and that concrete and masonry really starts to make more sense when a project is planned for more than eight floors.
“It’s about having choices and alternatives,” he said.
“Wood is a sustainable, natural product and it’s easy to work with.”
Fears about fire, he said, are somewhat disingenuous because new buildings today must have robust sprinkler systems and the standards being tabled for wood mid-rise buildings call for an upgrade in sprinkler usage, right out to the balconies.
Hargest has seized on the latter suggestion with incredulity: “I want to know how they stop the water from freezing in the winter on the balcony.”
But Giroux counters the water just doesn’t fill the pipe until the system is triggered and it remains inside, insulated from freezing, until needed and a valve indoors opens to release it to the sprinkler head outside.
Hargest is also furious that taxpayers’ money is being used in the fight to erode the market share of masonry and steel (since they’re usually a package deal on most projects) on the Canadian construction landscape.
“What bothers me as a taxpayer is that the forest industry received $42 million from the federal government and the lumber industry got $18 million,” he said. Most of the money has gone to pay for National Research Council and other research projects to support more wood. There’s a suspicion it may have also freed up dollars to it for political lobbying.
“As an industry I find it appalling federal and provinces give money to one sector and not to others like steel, concrete or masonry,” Hargest said. “For every job created in wood, you’re displacing one in steel or masonry.”
The “wood first” aspect of the double pronged attack by the CWC is more galling, says Hargest. British Columbia, perhaps understandably given its massive forestry industry, passed its Wood First Legislation in 2009. Quebec has similar legislation which promoted rather than dictates wood on public projects and Ontario has Bill 13, the Ontario Forestry Industry Revitalization Act (Height of Wood Frame Buildings) on deck having passed first reading but unlikely to progress further with a spring election threatening. In 2012 Bill 61, Ontario’s First Wood Act, died on the order paper after passing second reading.
The CCMPA has left no stone unturned in its fight: last spring they issued a press release after an incident in Calgary in which a man was cleaning his registered handgun when it discharged, sending the bullet through his wall and up through the floor of the next townhouse, through the outside wall and back into a third townhouse before smashing into a plasma TV screen while the owners were watching a show.
CCMPA called it a “near fatal” accident” and said it “calls into question the safety and stringency of Canada’s building codes.”
As Giroux notes, government grants are also available to the masonry and steel industry and they have also been beneficiaries of grants and NRC projects.
He said the CWC has been working for several years through a process with the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes and with a joint committee comprised of three of the nine standing committees to present and discussion six storey wood buildings.
B.C. has already six storey wood structures into their building code in 2009 and now there are 60 completed buildings with 190 in design or construction phase. Even 100 years ago he said there were six, seven and eight storey wood buildings in Montreal and Ottawa.
The big difference today is not just sprinklers but the building code itself which specifies much more flame resistant materials. Drywall, for example, is used to build wood framed firebreaks instead of masonry, sometimes on some projects and the result is instances of fires have dropped dramatically.
In any event, regardless of the construction material, it’s the interior furnishing which generates smoke and heat which is most destructive and fatal.
“You still need a firebreak, for example, but the code is more descriptive rather than prescriptive today,” he said. “It sets out what’s required and you meet that standard with the materials you choose.”