Taller wood buildings controversy soars in university communities


            B.C. university successfully constructs tallest North American wood building as Ontario crane operator rescued when fire engulfs 144-unit university residence

Canadian Design and Construction Report staff writer

A controversy is brewing about initiatives to amend the Canadian Building Code to allow the construction of taller wood building structures.

The wood industry believes that the renewable resource can be safely used to construct much larger structures, and has set out to prove the point with the construction of the Wood Innovation and Design Centre in downtown Prince George, the tallest contemporary all-wood building in North America

However, the Cement Association of Canada (CAC) says proposals to allow five and six storey wooden structures are risky.

The CAC contends these projects present many safety concerns for Canadians. “If these taller wood frame buildings are included in the Code, Canada could see an increase in fires and put vulnerable Canadians at risk,” said Michael McSweeney, the CAC’s president and CEO. “Each year we are seeing numerous fires in wood frame buildings and we have seen the devastating effects of recent massive fires in B.C. and Alberta.”


These observations have received support from the business agent for local 793 of the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), after a military helicopter rescued a crane operator when fire engulfed a 144-unit wood university residence project under construction in Kingston, Ontario.

Union leader Mike Gallagher said he is concerned at how quickly the fire spread and, as it was a block of student housing being constructed with wood that burst into flames and started the blaze, the focus should be on the building code and the use of timber as building material for those types of buildings.

“As terrible as this was, imagine the consequences if the building had been completed and students were living inside it when the fire occurred,” he said. “The consequences could have been tragic.”

The CAC said in a news release issued before the fire occurred that the current building code proposal for five and six-storey structures has many deficiencies, and “strongly recommends that a number of additional provisions be implemented.

“These include non-combustible stairwells and elevator shafts to provide firefighters with a safe refuge area from which to stage their firefighting and rescue operations and residents with a safe place to go so they can be rescued; non-combustible cladding and non-combustible roofing — this is fundamental to preventing a fire from spreading to adjacent buildings. Additionally, non-combustible two-hour firewalls should be mandated on these buildings along with the installation of sprinkler protection during the construction phase. Finally, the CAC believes that the protection of the lives of firefighters should be included in the NBCC.”

“Any building should be built once, built right and built to last,” said McSweeney. “Building codes are minimum codes and surely Canadians deserve more than this. Canadians should demand the gold standard in Canada’s National Building Code. The safety of Canadians must be the top priority.”

“The proposed changes have potential life and death implications,” the CAC news release quoted Carl Pearson, a first captain with the Thorold Fire and Emergency Services and the past president of the Fire Fighters’ Association of Ontario. “For firefighters, our number one concern is to safely rescue people, without casualties. If these proposed changes to the NBCC are implemented, Canadians lives could be at risk. We don’t want that to happen.”

However, the wood industry believes that larger structures can be built safely and economically, and it is showcasing wood construction’s potential with the Wood Innovation and Design Centre at the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). “The construction system being used is repeatable and expandable to other building types and sizes,” the university says on its website.

“As Canada’s Green University, UNBC is excited to attract world leaders to Northern British Columbia and to Prince George, a centre of Canada’s forest industry. This region is comprised of many communities that are reliant on the forest and the forest industry; the building is a showcase of innovative uses of wood that will lead to community sustainability and resiliency.”

“At the same time, the educational programming that will occur inside of the building, a proposed Master of Engineering in Integrated Wood Design and a proposed Master of Applied Science that will allow students to pursue research on wood and other forest products related to future wood structures, will attract students who will graduate and lead the world in the construction of new wood structures that will be both sustainable and healthy, illustrating the benefits of wood construction to healthy ecosystems and healthy communities.”

The site includes a live webcam showing the construction in progress. See also this Partnerships BC government site reference.

Architect: Michael Green

Structural Engineer: Equilibrium

Contractor: PCL Constructors Westcoast Inc. (PCL)


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