WEB EXCLUSIVE: Sticks and stones

As the Province of Ontario moves closer to a decision on regulations permitting taller wood-frame construction, two industry associations representing interests on either side of the debate continue the war of words, at least as it pertains to the claimed safety risks and budget impacts of taller wood-frame construction.

On August19, the Cement Association of Canada (CAC) made clear their belief that “cheap taller combustible housing could hurt municipalities,” and that “taller wood buildings are not the answer to affordable housing – and simply not worth the risk.”

In a press release, the CAC claims that “proposed changes to the Ontario Building Code (OBC) that would permit the construction of taller wood-frame structures will put Canadians’ safety at risk. Of particular concern is the proposed limited 10 per cent accessible perimeter specification. This is far less stringent than the 25 per cent to be required by the National Building Code of Canada and is inadequate to allow fire rescue and fire suppression, as one ladder truck alone would occupy the entire 19m accessible perimeter, with no space being available for additional trucks. Occupants could be stranded in a combustible building with no avenue for fire services to reach them.”

The Association also claims that is a “misperception” to view taller wood construction as an affordable housing choice. “While the cost of building a taller wood-frame structure may be initially lower, maintenance costs and the necessary fire protection systems make it more costly over the longer term for both the occupants and the municipalities,” said the CAC. “The inclusion of tall wood-frame buildings will result in additional costs to Ontario municipalities. Currently, many cash-strapped municipalities do not have the costly equipment that is necessary to fight fires in tall wood-frame buildings. The proposed changes will add major pressure on municipal budgets to add firefighting resources suitable for taller combustible wood-frame structures – which are more susceptible to fire than those constructed with non-combustible building materials.”

“Building practices that may compromise safety are not more affordable – they are cheap,” said Michael McSweeney, president and CEO, Cement Association of Canada. “Taller wood-frame buildings could compromise the safety of the people who might live and work in them as well as the safety of front line responders like firefighters. Rising emergency services costs are already straining municipal budgets. We cannot afford to take this risk.”

Not surprisingly, two days later on August 21, the Canadian Wood Council fired back with its own press release, claiming the cement industry took a ‘cheap’ shot “for fear of losing market share.”

“Advances in building technology and research, coupled with the rigorous five-year process for building code changes, should re-assure each Canadian that safety is of the utmost importance for each building material and for each decision made at the building code level. If a building does not meet code, it does not get built – regardless of the material used,” said the Council. “Putting forward code change requests to increase the height limits for wood buildings is not about risking lives, it’s about breaking down the misperceptions and barriers that exist regarding the capacity of wood products in modern construction and leveling the playing field for all building materials. The truth is, all building materials have pros and cons, and all buildings are susceptible to devastations such as earthquakes or fire. So when competing materials imply that wood is ‘unsafe’, are they advocating for Canadians or their own market share?”

In the release, the Council cites a February 2014 report “Fire Outcomes in Residential Fires by General Construction Type,” released by the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, that challenged the general belief that completed buildings built predominantly with steel or concrete are significantly safer in a fire than those built predominantly with wood. Comparing the outcomes of fires in residential buildings constructed with wood, steel or concrete showed little to no difference in extent of fire spread or death and injury rates for buildings equipped with sprinkler systems and smoke alarms.

“Canada’s wood products industry continues to develop innovative building products and improved building systems that are designed to meet the rigorous standards of the National Building Code of Canada,” says Canadian Wood Council president and CEO Michael Giroux. “At the end of the day, it is the discretion of each Municipality to make decisions about the infrastructure options that are best suited for their communities – we’re simply expanding their options.”

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