Quebec 12-storey mass timber building guide criticized over fire safety concern

August 28, 2015

By: Canadian Underwriter

Ten days after the Quebec government announced a technical guide on building mass timber buildings up to 12 storeys in height, an institute representing the precast prestressed concrete industry suggested there will be a cost of protecting such buildings from fire, during construction.

“We have already heard the insurance industry expressing their concerns of insuring these structures, not only during occupancy but also during construction,” stated theCanadian Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute (CPCI) in a press release Thursday.

CPCI was referring to an Aug. 17 announcement, by the Quebec government, that it published a technical guide, in French, titled Bâtiments de construction massive en bois d’au plus 12 étages (Construction of Mass Timber Buildings Up to 12 Storeys).

That guide “outlines the technical principles required to design and construct wooden buildings up to 12 storeys using mass timber,” stated FPInnovations, a Canadian forestry sector organization.

FPInnovations said in a release it is “possible to construct safe and secure wooden buildings greater than 6 storeys in height.” FPInnovations suggests that construction materials such as cross-laminated timber – rather than light wood framing – should be used for such projects.

FPInnovations’ board includes representatives from forest product firms Canfor Corp., Mercer International Inc., Resolute Forest Products Inc. and Kruger Products LP (whose wares include Scotties and White Swan tissue), among others. It has three research centres in Canada.

CPCI suggested Thursday that the Quebec government’s decision “circumvents the exceptional building code approval process” and is “over-stepping the national and provincial building codes and standards developed by accredited organizations.”

While each province has its own building and fire code, the federal government’s National Research Council publishes national model construction codes developed by the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes. That commission last fall held a public review of technical changes proposed for the 2015 edition of its codes.

New editions of the National Building CodeNational Fire CodeNational Plumbing Code and National Energy Code for Buildings are published every five years. The 2015 editions have not been published yet.

The 2010 national building and fire codes “currently limit the height of wood buildings to no more than four storeys,” NRC states on its website. A task group established in 2011, by the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes, “determined that height and area limits for buildings constructed of combustible materials could safely be increased to six storeys by either introducing new and/or modifying various protective measures.”

CPCI suggested Thursday that wood frame buildings under construction are not safe if “proper precautions” are not taken.

“Proper fire protection, during construction, will add thousands of dollars to the cost of these buildings; money which is simply charged back to the new homeowner,” CPCI said.

The insurance industry “also has concerns with mold issues in mid to higher storey wood buildings,” CPCI stated. “Many building envelope experts are highly recommending that all wood buildings be tarped during the entire construction period to reduce the risk of future mold growth during occupancy; a process that is already common in Europe and will add a major cost to wood construction.”

British Columbia has allowed six-storey wood frame building construction since 2009. In May 2011, the first six-storey all-wood building approved in the province was consumed by fire while under construction, published reports indicate.

The Ontario government increased the height limit – to six storeys from four – on wood frame buildings as of Jan. 1, 2015.

Last March, Toronto City Council voted in favour of a motion asking the provincial government to “move expeditiously on a provincial regulatory strategy for site safety practices during the construction of combustible buildings.”

This strategy should “guide site safety practices during the construction of combustible buildings,” wrote Ann Borooah, Toronto’s chief building official and executive director of Toronto Building, in a staff report to Toronto’s planning and growth committee.

In September, 2014, Ontario’s Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing ministry stated that changes to the Ontario Building Code would “give builders a safe option that can help make building a home more affordable and support more attractive, pedestrian-oriented buildings that enhance streetscapes while continuing to protect the safety of residents and firefighters.”

In 2013, the Progressive Conservative Member of Provincial Parliament for Nipissing, Vic Fedeli, had tabled a private member’s bill proposing to increase the height limit to six storeys.

“The forestry industry needs this support,” Fedeli said at the time.

But the Liberal Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister at the time, Linda Jeffrey, told the legislature Fedeli’s bill was premature and “could pose significant safety issues for both residents and our emergency responders.”

By: Canadian Underwriter

Your comments.

  1. Guy Lachapelle says:

    Cross-laminated wood that I call engineered wood is, I believe, treated with fire retardant. I also read that many firefighters would rather see themselves figth a wooded structure than a metal/concrete structure. I read that wooden structures will stand longer than metal/concrete structures giving them more time to do what needs to be done…like saving lives. Metal/concrete structures are affected by heat and will simply collapse much more rapidly than wooden structures.

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