Shaky business

Senior engineers are raising questions about the government's recently-announced promise to allow the construction of five and six storey wood-frame buildings. In an interview with Public Eye, University of British Columbia earthquake engineer facility director Carlos Ventura said he's not aware of any international guidelines for the construction of earthquake-safe wooden buildings of that height. "It's possible," he added. "But we haven't seen any technical documentation that will help engineers have some peace of mind or not be so concerned."

"We're certainly not saying it can't be done," stressed Structural Engineers Association of British Columbia interim president David Davey. "I'm certainly not aware of any place where it is done. So we're breaking some new ground."

But are condominium buyers and apartment renters in this province going to be comfortable breaking such ground? "This is our concern too," Mr. Davey replied. "Because engineers are required to provide assurances that the building is safe. And so we have to be sure that the construction problems have been addressed and that all our designers are fully aware of those concerns they should look for."

Mr. Davey and Dr. Ventura said there wasn't much consultation with engineers prior to the government announcing its plan to amend the BC Building Code. Indeed, according to Dr. Ventura, "it came out of the blue."

So Mr. Davey is recommending the government do a "proper study on the effects of increasing the height of wood buildings. And we feel there should be some time for education to ensure all the practitioners and users of the product are confident to increase building heights."

Coincidentally, the government quietly announced on Tuesday it was looking for a consultant to, in part, identify the seismic risks associated with such buildings. The housing and social development ministry didn't say why it hadn't commissioned that work prior to promising the building code amendment. But, in an email sent to Public Eye, the ministry stated, "The safety of wood-frame buildings in situations such as an earthquake will be a fundamental consideration in making changes to wood frame construction."

"This type of building technology is already in use elsewhere in the world, including Seattle and Portland. The province knows it can be done, and the work now involves finding ways to apply the technology safely here in B.C." But "before making any changes, the Province plans to consult carefully with those involved in building and construction."

The government rolled out its promise to allow five and six storey wood-frame buildings on March 12. That announcement was preceded by a forest industry presentation on February 15 urging the government to promote British Columbia wood products by making the building code more "wood-centric." The following is a copy of the government's request for a consultant to review its planned code amendment.

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B. Requirements and Response

1. Summary of the Requirement

The Building and Safety Policy Branch, a branch of the Ministry of Housing and Social Development, has responsibility for maintaining and updating the 2006 British Columbia Building Code.

The Minister of Housing and Social Development has announced plans to increase the maximum allowable height for wood-framed construction from four storeys to up to and including six storeys in building height.

The Building and Safety Policy Branch requires the services of a qualified consultant to:

* Review background documentation
* Identify the technical and process risks associated with increasing the maximum number of allowable storeys for wood-framed construction for residential occupancy to six storeys of building height
* Prepare a technical report which recommends a detailed technical proposal for changing the BC Building Code in accordance with the criteria attached
* Present the recommended technical proposal at three multi-stakeholder sessions; first, for preliminary discussion, second, for review and comment and, third, to communicate results; note that the final session may be recorded by video for further distribution

The terms of the contract will begin on August 11, 2008 and continue until November 30, 2008.

2. Additional Definitions

In addition to the Request for Proposals Definitions set out in paragraph 1 of Section A, throughout this Request for Proposals, the following definitions will apply:

* "Building Code" means the 2006 British Columbia Building Code;
* "Minister" means the Minister of Housing and Social Development; and
* "Technical Risk" means exposure to loss arising from activities such as design, engineering, and construction processes and includes the following risk areas: fire safety, seismic, structural shrinkage, sound transmission, building techniques, moisture, material shrinkage, etc..
* "Process risk" means processes that are not clearly defined, are poorly aligned with business objectives and strategies, do not satisfy stakeholders' needs, or expose assets to misappropriation or misuse. Process risk includes the following risk areas: industry readiness and competency in areas of both design and construction, readiness of warranty providers to provide insurance in accordance with Homeowner Protection Act, fire department capabilities, etc.
* "BSPB" means the Building and Safety Policy Branch
* "Building Height" (in storeys) has the same meaning as defined in section 1.4, Division A, of the BC Building Code.

3. Ministry Situation/Overview

3.1 Ministry Responsibility

The BSPB, a branch of the Ministry of Housing and Social Development, provides policy advice on British Columbia's building regulatory system and safety regulatory system and supports safety, health, structural sufficiency and accessibility for buildings and safety systems.

With respect to building, the BSPB works to advance building safety and accessibility in British Columbia by developing, maintaining and applying building regulations including providing advice and clarification of the regulations to industry practitioners.

Specific core building activities of the Branch include:

* Stewardship of the development and application of the Building and Fire Codes;
* Acting as secretariat to the Building Code Appeal Board, the Province of British Columbia's building code dispute resolution board;
* Working with the Homeowner Protection Office to strengthen consumer protection for buyers of new homes under the Homeowner Protection Act;

3.2 Background

Over the last decade, several major urban centres in the western United States have amended their building codes to allow wood-frame structures of up to six storeys. Changes in the maximum building heights were made by local municipal governments in the United States to increase urban density and provide residents with more affordable housing options.

Residential wood-framed construction is currently limited to four storeys under the Building Code.

In May 2008, the Minister announced plans to change the Building Code to allow for wood-framed residential occupancy buildings of up to and including six storeys. By late September 2008 the Minister will announce details of the proposed changes.
3.3 Project Scope/Budget

The primary focus of the project relates to amending the Building Code to allow for six storeys of wood frame construction in residential structures. However, the project must also address the changes required to allow for six storeys of wood frame construction where other major occupancies are located in the residential building.

The project is divided into three phrases all of which are included in this RFP.

The first phase is a research phase. It involves reviewing technical literature and identifying the key technical and process risks associated with increasing the maximum number of allowable storeys for residential occupancy from four storeys to up to and including six storeys of building height.

The second phase will focus on developing a technical proposal for changing the Building Code, (including specifying the technical rationale) to meet the government's objective.

The third phase involves fine tuning the proposed recommendation, presenting results and recommending any next steps.

The specific tasks associated with each phase are identified in the "Requirements" section of this document.

4. Requirements

4.1 Phase One (to be completed by September 5, 2008)

* Review background documents; conduct independent additional research as needed
* Summarize the Building Code provisions related to combustible and non combustible construction
* Identify the technical and process risks associated with increasing the maximum number of storeys currently allowed under the Building Code;
* Prepare a report which summarizes the technical and process risks and proposed approach to address these risks
* Presentation of the summary report to working group of stakeholders; meeting to be organized and chaired by the BSPB; incorporate feedback in report; suggest week of September 2nd.

Attached to the RFP as Appendix B is a scoping review titled "Multi-Level Wood-Framed Structures: Requirements For Building Beyond Four Storeys" that was prepared for the BSPB. This document provides information on recent developments in several American jurisdictions and includes a review of related literature.

Attached to the RFP as Appendix C is the criteria to be used as guidance in developing the technical
proposal.

4.2 Phase Two (to be completed by October 31, 2008)

* Prepare a technical report which recommends a detailed technical proposal for changing the Building Code to increase the maximum number of stories for wood frame construction for residential occupancies. The report must meet the following criteria:

* Technical rationale must be provided
* It is envisioned that the technical proposal will focus on fire safety issues; structural and seismic issues may be simply subject to good engineering and construction practices
* The recommended proposal must include wording written in standard code language and format;
* The report must identify any pre-conditions and additional assumptions (such as fire fighting capacity of local area and other occupancy criteria or restrictions) that the Proponent has made or determines are necessary
* The recommended proposal must identify any limitations that the Proponent feels is necessary to ensure acceptable levels of life and fire safety
* Provide a summary of implementation issues associated with the recommended proposal.

The technical report must be presented to working group of stakeholders (meeting to be organized and chaired by the BSPB). After the meeting, the Proponent must incorporate the stakeholder's feedback in the report and provide an updated copy to the BSPB.

4.3 Phase Three (to be completed by November 30, 2008)

* Prepare a presentation outlining the proposal for increasing the maximum number of allowable storeys for residential occupancy construction
* In conjunction with the BSPB, deliver the presentation to multi-stakeholder workshop; session may be recorded by video and distributed further by the BSPB
* Revise and finalize summary and technical reports to incorporate comments from BSPB and other code user input.

4.4 Meetings with BSPB as requested either by conference call or at consultant's place of work. Estimated 4-6 meetings.

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