Wood-framing the issue

Housing consumer advocates are criticizing the government for enacting a Building Code amendment earlier this month that will allow for the construction of five and six storey wood-frame buildings. Public Eye was the first to report on the earthquake and fire-safety concerns related to such buildings - which Premier Gordon Campbell first promised to allow in May. But, despite those concerns, the government has pressed ahead with that promise, introducing an amendment on January 8 that could see five and six storey wood-frame houses begin construction as early as April 6.

In reaction, Consumer Advocacy and Support for Homeowners Society president John Grasty said in a news release distributed yesterday morning, "We do not support this amendment at this time. It appears that this government learned nothing from the leaky condo disaster and the use and application of unproven technologies."

But a housing and social development ministry spokesperson defended the amendment stating, "Six-storey wood frame construction is already practiced in other jurisdictions, including Portland, Oregon. Buildings recently constructed there have performed well."

The spokesperson also stated the government has "held several technical advisory group meetings bringing together experts and leaders in the fire service to help fully understand their concerns and work with them to develop solutions." And the Campbell administration continues to work with "communities to ensure fire officials have the information they need."

The following is a complete copy of the aforementioned news release.

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RELEASE: No homeowner support for 6-Storey Building Code amendment... - January 15, 2008

Yesterday we received notice that on January 8, 2009, Housing & Social Development Minister Coleman signed the Ministerial Order (No. M 008) amending the BC Building Code effective April 6, 2009, to allow for the construction of 6 storey wood frame construction as previously announced.

Based on our own concerns and those expressed by members of the professionals groups involved, the Consumer Advocacy and Support for Homeowners (CASH) Society believes that the residential construction sector is unprepared for implementation this April, and perhaps even April of 2010.

"We do not support this amendment at this time. It appears that this government learned nothing from the leaky condo disaster and the use and application of unproven technologies" said John Grasty, president of CASH Society.

The experience of 6 storey wood-frame building in other jurisdictions, with arbitrary estimations, different assumptions, conditions, materials, methods, etc., should offer opportunities to learn from but shouldn't be relied upon without rigorous localized testing in BC.

Grasty added, "CASH Society believes that the training, testing, qualifying, etc., of professionals and trades can only start following the approval of locally verified processes, durable designs and materials, and strict quality standards."

Safe construction processes for 6-storey wood frame construction will remain unproven until all experimental projects, such as thorough seismic testing or fire trials for full compartmentation system assemblies, have been completed, and the revisions made and finally signed off by the professional bodies responsible for overseeing.

The latest conflagration of a condo development in Surrey happened during these consultations and should act as a harsh message for the industry stakeholders to consider. What early measures will be adopted in the process for the sprinkler system to be installed and monitored in combustible construction?

Given the number of pre-existing problems with 4 storey wood-frame construction that remains unaddressed, CASH Society is worried that homeowners are left exposed to even more risk, when even the current risk to life and property and the current capabilities in dealing with the risk is unknown.

"The wall board "˜fire rating' is degraded when the panels are installed horizontally rather than vertically and midway on wall studs. Shrinkage, caused by the materials (including moisture in wood) and methods used, is already one of the most common deficiencies in 4 storey wood frame construction", said CASH Society's Vice President, Dan Hall.

The cost and burdens of shrinkage remediation has been left to the means of homeowners (there is no warranty coverage at the present time for splits in walls and cracks in ceilings etc.), and is not currently measured or reported.

To provide homeowners adequate coverage and protection from the extra shrinkage which can now be expected, changes to the 2-5-10 Warranty Insurance program are required.

CASH Society questions the use of taxes and the deployment of ministry resources on such low priority projects in BC while serious longstanding homeowner protection issues are not being addressed by government.

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