Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman said today that five and six storey wood-frame buildings will be gradually phased in "to make sure we do this right." This, in response to fire and earthquake safety concerns about the government's controversial decision to allow such buildings. But he said there will be no legal requirement for that to happen, acknowledging such buildings could be constructed as soon as the BC Building Code amendments allowing them come into effect.
Speaking with Public Eye, Minister Coleman said, "There's always going to be, when change comes, some group that says the sky is going to fall. But the fact of the matter is we can build six storey wood-frame construction in British Columbia safely. And we're going to do that."
"Engineers tell us they can design these buildings and architects say they're okay with it," he said.
"The fact of the matter is wood-frame construction exists in other jurisdictions. We have better sprinkler and separation then we did 30 years ago. We can handle this," continued Minister Coleman.
"I am comfortable with the due diligence and consultation that went into this. It was very, very extensive. And I am very comfortable with it."
Minister Coleman also said the construction of such buildings will be phased-in, "We're going to put the fire storey in a cement podium. We'll put five storeys on top of it. And then we'll phase the six storeys in over time because that's what we're going to do to make sure we do this right."
But Minister Coleman later acknowledged there was no legal requirement for such a phased approach to happen, saying "We just know from engineers that they'll design the buildings they think are appropriate." The following is an edited transcript of that interview.
Media On the issue of wood-frame buildings, fire chiefs in B.C. - all the major fire associations - have concerns about it. Structural engineers say the situation...
Minister Coleman Sean, that's absolutely not true. You've got a couple of fire chiefs that have concerns. The head of the B.C. fire chiefs actually wrote a letter saying that they didn't have the concerns. The fact of the matter is wood-frame construction exists in other jurisdictions. We have better sprinkler systems and fire separation then we did 30 years ago. We can handle this. The sprinkler systems can handle it. How we do our fire separation with our dry wall is different then it even was 10 years ago. So I'm quite comfortable we're on the right track.
Media The fire services liaison group represents all the major fire services associations in B.C. - the five major ones. The (Canadian regional manager for the) National Fire Protection Association has concerns with this. So do the structural engineers. I'm not a building guy. So I don't know. I'm just reporting on what these guys are saying
Minister Coleman I think the the reality is we went through a very extensive consultation process with all these people. And they gave us submissions. They told us it was okay then. Those that want to speak out can speak out. Jurisdictions have the choice as to whether they want to go to six storey wood-frame construction or not. We don't impose that building code in any particular municipality. So in those where the fire chiefs choose to be less progressive then others - fine. The fact of the matter is this is a pretty easily phased-in thing. We're going to put the first storey in a cement podium. We'll put five storeys on top of it. And then we'll phase the six storeys in over time because that's what we're going to do to make sure we do this right. It's important, frankly, for a number of things. One, we're a commodity-based jurisdiction where wood-frame is important to us because we're a forest-based community. On top of that, other jurisdictions - Alberta - has told us they think think they can go with us - with six-storey as well. Which is good, because we can set the standard across the country. There's already wood-frame construction in places like Oregon and in Seattle and elsewhere. We've looked at that all around the world. We did a very extensive consultation process with engineers, with architects. We believe we can do it. We'll build some buildings. We'll work them out. And we'll get it done.
Media But if there's all these concerns about it, why not just delay implementing it?
Minister Coleman Because I don't think you'll find the concerns until you build them. Engineers tell us they can design these buildings and architects say they're okay with it. There's always going to be, when change comes, some group that says the sky is going to fall. But the fact of the matter is we can build six storey wood-frame construction in British Columbia safely. And we're going to do that.
Media But even some of the examples cited by your government - six storeys being functional in Portland and Seattle - that's just not the case. That's just not true. So doesn't that show a lack of due diligence?
Minister Coleman I am comfortable with the due diligence and consultation that went into this. It was very, very extensive. And I am very comfortable with it. And I know wood-frame buildings stand-up better in a lot of things - including earthquakes - a lot better then cement does. And I frankly think we should be able to move to that kind of construction in B.C. safely. We're going to allow the building code to be changed on April 6. We'll design the buildings. They will be done. And our engineers will sign-off on it. And an engineer won't sign-off on a building, quite frankly, that he designs and put his seal on it if he doesn't think he can design it safely.
Media One final question: you mentioned phased. That's not mentioned in the (amendments to the BC Building Code)...
Minister Coleman We just know that on the mid-rise we'll probably find we'll do the podium plus five storeys as we work through some of the issues. We've know that for some time. We've always said that.
Media Is that in law?
Minister Coleman It doesn't have to be. We just know from engineers that they'll design the buildings they think are appropriate.
Media So you're assuming the industry will adopt a phased-approach?
Minister Coleman Well, no. I used to build. So four storey wood-frame construction was a step - way back when, when we went from three storey to four storey - people said, 'Oh no, we can't do that. It's one more storey. It's too much weight. We won't be able to handle the fire.' We brought it better fire separation. We brought in better sprinkler systems. And we've handled it fine. And if you look at those buildings that were built that are four storey construction with sprinklers, the ones that we have trouble with today are the ones that were built back in the 1970s with no sprinkler system and were done under part nine of the building code. And even those buildings - which part nine of the building code, at that time, allowed you to build a separate building within a building. So you had this phase here. You had a wall all the way down with fire doors and an exit. I mean, we managed that. You can't be afraid of change.
Media But I just want to be clear, though, that there's nothing saying some people couldn't put six storey buildings up right away?
Minister Coleman If their engineers can design them, yes - after April 6.
Media But there's isn't actually a phased approach then?
Minister Coleman No.