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"Wood first" policies wake sleeping giant

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by Richard Gilbert last update:Sep 15, 2014

Members of Canadian concrete and steel construction associations are angry and upset about a campaign by the wood industry to persuade provincial and federal governments to give wood preferential treatment over other building materials.

“We are not complaining anymore, we are going to war,” said Ed Whalen, president of the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction (CISC).

“Governments that decide to implement Wood First or treat one material over another, they will see us at the table. The wood industry has awoken the sleeping giant.”

Whalen made this statement at the Converge 2013 forum, which brought together leaders from the Canadian building materials and construction industries at the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver on Oct. 16.

His presentation during a panel discussion, Preference Policies: When Promotion become Legislation, was extremely critical of Wood First legislation in Canada.

The Ontario Wood First Act passed second reading in the provincial legislature in April 2012, which included changes to the building code that could have allowed six storey wood buildings to be constructed. The act died in committee when Premier Dalton McGuinty resigned on Oct.15, 2012 and obtained a prorogation of the Ontario legislature.

The act required the use of wood as the primary building material in the construction of provincially funded buildings, if the building design allows the use of wood under the building code.

“I can guarantee you that Wood First will hurt our industries,” Whalen said.

“The wood industry cares about their own survival versus sustainability. I see it as greed over public safety. They want legislation versus free choice. They want legislation as opposed to the rigour and safety of the building code process.”

In response to Whalen, another panelist argued his approach to the problem is a misguided and negative.

“The last thing that this industry needs or any industry needs is to declare war on another,” said Daniel Veniez, an entrepreneur and chairman of EMR Capital Corporation.

“You shouldn’t be focusing responsibility or blame on the wood industry. These guys have done their jobs and they have done it well. You should do yours. In this context, your focus should not be anger. It should be a clear articulation of the facts.” According to Veniez, declaring war as a way to drive innovation and competitiveness is a losing proposition.

He said that the real enemy of the Canadian steel industry is the global steel industry, not the wood industry.

In addition, Veniez said the notion that the wood industry is unethical is utter nonsense.

“The focus of everybody should be where it rightfully belongs, on governments and legislators,” he said.

“So, they understand the issues and make fact-based and sensible decisions, on behalf of all of us. You can have fun declaring war all you want, but it won’t help you and it won’t help Canada.”

Veniez agreed that Wood First legislation is bad policy, but he said it is understandable in the context of a forest industry that was in deep distress.

In B.C., there was no debate in the legislature and no regulatory regime accompanying it, as you see with most legislation.

“The issue of Wood First is important to the members of the concrete industry and they were incensed by the process and what was going on inside B.C. politics,” said Charles Kelly, a panelist in the discussion and president of the B.C. Ready-Mixed Concrete Association.

“Some of these people were not just looking at this from a broad policy perspective, they were looking at it as an industry that had been wronged.”

Despite this, there are currently 44 cities and municipalities in B.C. with Wood First resolutions and bylaws.

“My primary objective as far as British Columbia is concerned is to have that policy reversed, or thrown out or amended,” said Kelly.

“I am trying to find a tactical way to create an environment, where it is a win for the government and we have allies, not just our side against their side.”

Kelly said the best way to do this is to build positive relationships with people in the wood industry, who understand co-operation is in everybody’s best interest.

“I think the first step is an independent review that puts a bunch of professionals and others at the table,” he said. “So, there is a process that leads to a rational discussion and a consensus that leads to change.”

All the panelists agreed that Wood First legislation is an attack on open, free and fair markets. The government is also picking one industry over another, as well as one worker’s job and livelihood over another.

They said that designers and architects should be free to choose any material that is appropriate for solving a specific building problem.

In addition, construction requires that a combination of materials, including steel, concrete, glass and wood, are integrated into a structure or building.

last update:Sep 15, 2014

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