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Flurry of farm construction reinforces the need for proper building practices

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by Mary Baxter

In 2016, as building contractors Daryl and Angie Bender ventured into chicken farming, they noticed many buildings appearing on farms near their Tavistock, Ont.-area property.
Flurry of farm construction reinforces the need for proper building practices

The Benders couldn't have picked a better time to spread their wings into poultry. A 2016 Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada outlook report predicts that in the next 10 years Canadian chicken production will increase 22 per cent over the current five-year average in order to meet consumer demand.

It's projections like those, says Will Teron, heritage and investigation director at Tacoma Engineers in Guelph and Barrie, that drive some of the building activity the Benders are not only seeing but also responding to in their own construction business.

He describes the activity as a steady "broad-based" construction boom within agriculture.

Jim Zyta, vice-president of loss prevention with Heartland Farm Mutual insurance, says the boom began five to 10 years ago. He links it to the consolidation of smaller livestock operations into larger operations.

Responding to animal welfare concerns is another driver. In the chicken industry for instance, processors such as Cargill are switching over to using modular loading equipment to improve the handling of chickens during collection, transport and slaughter.

Chicken farmers in turn must introduce the systems in their barns and Teron estimates 70 per cent will make the transition in three to five years.

Work will involve retrofits to existing barns such as reinforcing floors and beams or adding ceiling height or new lintels for doors and building new barns.

Fritz Enzlin, Norfolk County's chief building official, says his department is seeing the construction of large facilities that also include multipurpose space such as offices and conference rooms. Norfolk is one of Canada's top vegetable producing areas.

"We have one farm building, it has a large conference room and an office area that looks like a front office of an industrial building," Enzlin explains. "You've got work stations and there's a customer service counter."

He says building officials face significant challenges when assessing which standards such buildings should meet, the national farm building code or the Ontario building code.

Which code applies affects building costs. The Ontario fire code exempts farm buildings. An industrial building, on the other hand, would need sprinklers and other fire protection.

In rural areas fire hydrants are scarce.

To determine how to apply the codes, Enzlin consults industry associations or obtains interpretations from Ontario ministries.

Teron says the national farm building code, due to be released as part of the national building code update in 2020, will add clarity.

The code recognizes the qualities that set farm buildings apart from their industrial cousins as they are low human occupancy structures often in isolated locations and housing a different type of occupant.

The current document addresses design loads, fire egress, building separation, access and safety. Published in 1995, it is significantly out of date, a problem both industry and government recognize.

Teron is one of two Canadian Farm Builders Association representatives on the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes joint task group on farm buildings.

The group steers the code update.

The code will apply to farm buildings of 600 square metres or more.

The task group is considering four farm building classifications: high hazard, such as a building where dangerous gases might be present; standard; greenhouse; and no human occupancy, such as a structure used for manure storage.

Teron anticipates the update will feature many changes. Snow and wind load requirements could jump to once-in-a-50-year occurrence (they are currently one-in-30 and one-in-10, respectively).

The formula for calculating sliding snow might be reworked and the maximum distance between wood trusses altered.

As well, the subcommittee addressing fire protection is looking at substantially expanding the space before a fire separation is needed and applying different standards related to the materials used to construct the buildings.

High hazard buildings "will have more stringent requirements," he says.

The time lag between when building codes are released federally and when they are adopted into provincial codes could mean the update won't take effect until 2023.

"Once this is incorporated into the national building code, it will be part of the regular code cycle updates," he says.

The group also wants the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes to establish a standing committee on farm structures.

Currently, the national fire code doesn't apply to farm buildings.

In the meantime, Teron says the lack of an updated code is no cause for concern in relation to the current flurry of farm construction.

While the current code does have some shortcomings, the buildings constructed under its terms are fundamentally sound.

Most issues to do with fire in recent years have had to do with maintenance not original construction, he says.

"Building codes are a minimum standard. You always have the ability to build better," he says.

Adding drive aisles around a barn for fire trucks might not be included in the code, "but wouldn't it be prudent," he says, as would be isolating mechanical rooms.

"Those are all options that are available today."

Moreover, there have been many industry and government educational campaigns to educate builders, designers, building officials and stakeholders about electrical safety.

"And a big stakeholder in this is the insurance industry," he says. Insurers regularly inspect hundreds of barns a year and follow up with recommendations.

"That really comes into creating a better building stock."

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