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Study answers questions about wood construction costs in Atlantic Canada

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by Don Procter

The cost of building a six-storey wood building in Halifax is comparable to the tab for a similar structure in B.C., according to a study by Atlantic Wood WORKS!, a non-profit program of the Maritime Lumber Bureau that promotes the use of wood in commercial and multi-family construction.
Study answers questions about wood construction costs in Atlantic Canada

The findings of the study, based on a five-storey wood mid-rise with a one-storey concrete podium constructed in Kamloops, B.C., are significant because they answer questions developers in Atlantic Canada have on the price to build a wood mid-rise, says Patrick Crabbe, project co-ordinator with Atlantic Wood WORKS!

Called Wood for Mid-Rise Construction: Opportunities for Atlantic Canadian Urban Centres, the study is funded by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the Canadian Wood Council, the Atlantic provinces and regional industry.

"Based on our findings, we realized the cost comparison is transferable across Canada," points out Crabbe, who delivered a seminar on mid-rise wood costing in Atlantic Canada recently at an event hosted by Ontario Wood WORKS! at the Paramount Centre in Vaughan, Ont.

The first all-wood mid-rise in Atlantic Canada is expected to start in Dartmouth, N.S. this year, he says.

Crabbe points out there are only minor cost differences in materials and labour between B.C. and Nova Scotia.

Specialty lumber, however, such as cross-laminated timber, is less expensive in B.C. where it is manufactured.

"We would have to ship it to Halifax from Quebec, Austria or the West Coast," he says.

Still, he told the audience, the fixed-price differences of the materials can be offset by work crew size, productivity and payrolls.

Land values prove to be the biggest distinction from province to province.

Crabbe says Halifax-based structural engineer Scott Underhill, of BMR Structural Engineering, vetted the base model in Kamloops, a mid-rise erected by Tri-City Contracting. That engineer worked with cost consultant Renaud Francoeur, of QS Online Cost Consultants Inc., to develop comparable structures in steel, concrete and all wood.

He says the study shows a six-storey wood rise in Atlantic Canada would be 12 per cent less costly to build than a comparable steel structure and 10 per cent less than a concrete one.

While underground parking was excluded from the costing model because it is "too site specific," a wood rise might see additional savings for one or two parking levels because it is a lighter structure than steel or concrete.

The largest cost differential favouring wood is the structural stability requirements for upper floors, Crabbe adds. That is because demising and partition walls are often load bearing in wood structures but steel and concrete structures don't include partition walls in their price, they are added later.

"It's a real winner for wood and it puts the explanation of costs savings in a different context," Crabbe states.

Insurance costs — included in the study — show wood is only slightly higher than concrete or steel for a six-storey structure, he told the seminar.

Speed of construction was not studied, however.

"It's the reason a lot of people think wood is less expensive," he added.

Crabbe says the objective of the two-part study was first to demonstrate market demand in Atlantic Canada for mid-rise wood projects and second to present cost savings to industry — while encouraging provincial governments to "promptly adopt of the 2015 (National) Building Code."

Crabbe says Nova Scotia and Newfoundland are hoping to adopt that code this spring to clear the path for developers.

For now, wood mid-rises are submitted for approval to municipal authorities as an "alternate solution," requiring developers to demonstrate the design is at least as safe as the acting building code, which increases costs.

Crabbe says in putting the study together, one of the challenges was to keep the reader's attention. The approach was to produce a 10-page case document on the Kamloops project that "was not so heavy on the details. We're hoping that will be the successful formula for people to go on to read the detailed (35 page) report."

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