A group of Alberta firefighters is calling on the province to rethink a decision to allow for the construction of wood buildings up to 12 storeys tall.
On Friday, the province announced it will allow construction of 12-storey buildings using fire-resistant wood material beginning this spring. Right now, Alberta building codes only allow wood buildings to be constructed up to six storeys high.
The president of the Alberta Fire Fighters Association said the group has safety concerns surrounding the high-rise buildings, including fire hazards while they’re being built. He said wood-frame buildings are most vulnerable when they’re under construction, before the safety systems have been installed.
The group urges the province to hit pause on the approval at least until a review of the National Building Code is completed at the end of 2020.
“Adequate staffing and resources need to be in place in order to fight fires in such occurrences and we feel that most cities and municipalities in the province would not have the capability of dealing with such a large structure,” Brad Readman said.
“What’s the rush? Why not wait until that’s completed?”
Readman believes municipalities should be required to obtain permits to construct 12-storey wood buildings, and that permits only be issued to those that have been through specialized training and have specific emergency response plans in place.
“There is no need to rush high-rise, wood-frame construction in Alberta. We need to ensure that emergency planning for the three stages of life of these building have been addressed — construction, occupancy, and potential emergency phases should be looked at with fire protection in mind,” Readman said.
“It’s what the people of Alberta and the province’s firefighters expect and deserve.”
The province said building codes will require tall wood buildings to be built as encapsulated mass timber construction, where the solid or engineered wood has been surrounded by fire-resistive material.
In a statement, a spokesperson with Alberta Municipal Affairs said the next edition of the National Building Code, which more than a dozen Alberta building and fire organizations consulted on, will include the change to allow for 12-storey wood buildings.
“We have simply moved early to eliminate this red tape and to support economic development in our province,” Tim Gerwing said.
‘Almost a wood alternative to tilt-up concrete’
Rory Koska is the director of Wood WORKS! Alberta, which aims to increase the use of wood products in construction projects. He said much has changed when it comes to wood construction.
“We’re not looking at light-frame construction any longer. We’re looking at what we call mass-wood construction,” he explained.
“So if you think of large panels of wood tightly glued, screwed or doweled together — mechanically fastened — putting up these buildings now become a panel system or a post and beam construction.”
Koska said the panels can be as large as 10 feet wide by 40 to 60 feet long, and be anywhere from about 5.5 inches to one-foot deep.
“We’re talking about almost a wood alternative to tilt-up concrete,” he said. “So with that, we can go to a higher level.”
He said the panels go through “rigorous testing” and can last anywhere from three to five hours in a furnace in a burn test. Koska said the buildings are fully equipped with sprinkler systems.
“It doesn’t burn like we think of as light-frame construction any longer,” he said.
“You think of putting a log on a fire. Fire’s burning, you put a large log on it — we’ve all been camping — and that log puts out the fire. It ends up burning a bit, then charring and building its own protection. So that’s why we can go taller and higher with these types of buildings.”
The technology has been around for more than a decade and is used in Europe, Australia and the United States. Here in Canada, the technology is already used in parts of British Columbia.