Briefing note: taller wood-frames have "significant" fire safety concerns

A briefing note prepared for Housing and Social Development Minister Rich Coleman advised there would be "significant" fire safety concerns with five and six wood-frame buildings. But despite that note - which was obtained exclusively by Public Eye via a freedom of information request - the government moved ahead with its plan to permit the construction of those controversial buildings.

Premier Gordon Campbell first mentioned the possibility of taller wood-frames at the Council of Forest Industries annual convention on April 16, 2008, telling attendees, "Wood can be used up to four storeys. Let's push that ceiling."

In reaction, an April 30 briefing noted prepared by the government's building policy and safety branch noted the Canadian Wood Council - the association representing wood product manufacturers - had been "conducting a national initiative to explore increasing wood construction in Canada to 5-8 storeys."

But that note warned "combustible buildings higher than three or four storeys are considered to present a significant fire load."

The note also stated increasing the height of such buildings "will likely meet firm resistance from building and fire officials."

As a result, the branch recommended the government "continue to liaise" with the council "and monitor their work on increasing wood construction in Canada to 5-8 storeys."

And it further recommended the government "initiate policy discussion" through the National Building Code development system "about increasing the allowable height of wood construction."

The note didn't, however, recommend the province independently allow taller wood-frame buildings by amending the British Columbia Building Code - an initiative that would present "significant resource implications."

But the same day it was prepared, Minister Coleman told the Canadian Home Builders' Association his government wanted to "go to six storeys."

In early May, Premier Campbell delivered the same message to the province's mayors - this, according to a report by The Vancouver Sun's Gordon Hamilton.

And, on January 8, 2009 the government introduced an amendment to the British Columbia Building Code to do just that - an amendment that will come into effect on April 6.

In the past, engineering, fire and earthquake experts - as well as American building officials - have all told Public Eye they have concerns about the government's decision to allow taller wood-frames.

But, in an earlier interview, Minister Coleman told Public Eye, "I am comfortable with the due diligence and consultation that went into" that decision. "It was very, very extensive. And I am very comfortable with it."

And, in a letter to The Times Colonist, he stated, "many of the (British Columbia) Building Code changes were specifically designed to manage fire risks, such as a higher standard for sprinklers and combustion-resistant cladding."

The following is a complete copy of the aforementioned briefing note.

***

MINISTRY OF FORESTS AND RANGE
AND MINISTRY RESPONSIBLE FOR HOUSING
BRIEFING NOTE

CLIFF #113303

April 30, 2008

PREPARED FOR: Minister Coleman - For Decision

ISSUE: Premier's comment to "push the ceiling" on wood construction

BACKGROUND:

* In his address to the Council of Forest Industries at their Annual Convention on April 16th, the Premier mentioned that:

"...Right now in British Columbia we limit the building materials that we use up to four storeys. Wood can be used up to four storeys. Let's push that ceiling."

* Historically, building codes were created to reduce the risk of major fires.

* Most of North America and much of the rest of the world limits wood (combustible) construction to four storeys.

* Until 1990 the limit in Canada was three storeys. Currently BC Building Code (BCBC) allows four sotrey wood construction.

* Several countries are exploring an increase in the allowable building height for wood construction.

* The Canadian Wood Council (CWC) is conducting a national initiative to explore increasing wood construction in Canada to 5-8 storeys.

* Combustible buildings higher than three or four storeys are considered to present a significant fire load.

* Considerations to increase the height of wood frame buildings will likely meet firm resistance from building and fire officials.

* In Canada, changing the model National Building Code (NBC) from three to four storey wood frame buildings was significant.

* BC's Building Safety and Policy Branch (BSPB) participates in developing the content of the model NBC.

* Any examination to alter the allowable height of wood construction in the BCBC independently of National building code development process presents significant resource implications.

* The ultimate goal for CWC's national initiative is to revise the 2015 NBC to allow greater use of combustible construction in 6-8 storey (mid-rise) buildings. This is a major shift in regulating the height of wood construction

* The CWC is conducting extensive analysis that will be a valuable source of information in considering the impacts of increasing the allowable height of wood construction.

* The CWC's project goals are to:

* Identify and develop solutions to barriers prohibiting wood use over four storeys
* Discover ways to increase the amount of wood used in mid-rise construction
* Explore conceptual designs for mid-rise alternative building forms
* Design and construct a 6-8 storey prototype of wood
* Ultimately revise the 2015 NBC to permit wood construction over four storey

RECOMMENDED OPTION:

Continue to liaise with the CWC and monitor their work on increasing wood construction in Canada to 5-8 storeys.

Initiate policy discussion through the National code development system about increasing the allowable height of wood construction.

Approvals for Briefing Note

DIR

Assoc. DM

E-mailed to MO

Date

Contact: Jeff Vasey, Executive Director
Author: Matt Belanger, Policy Analyst

Original Date: April 29, 2008
Revised: April 30, 2008-04-30

1 Comment

Coleman has a demonstrated "tin ear" when it comes to the concerns of home buyers and the public interest. First he has an HPO board dominated by developers and construction people.Then there was the TFL land windfall for a forest company going into land development.
This is just another example.

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