Fire safety at the crux of building code concerns

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by Shannon Moneo last update:Oct 10, 2014

The escalating skirmish between Canada's concrete industry and advocates for midrise wood structures could be doused by strengthened sprinkler regulations proposed for the 2015 National Building Code of Canada (NBCC).

Revisions to the 2010 NBCC would increase the maximum wood building height to six storeys, from the current four-storey limit.

Other amendments increase sprinkler requirements, stipulate the use of non-combustible cladding on the top floors and call for increased water supplies for firefighting.

However, the president and CEO of the Cement Association of Canada (CAC) said that allowing five and six-storey wood buildings could result in more structure fires that put not only building occupants at risk, but also endanger the lives of firefighters.

“If a fire happens in a wood building, firefighters will not go into it,” said Michael McSweeney.

“There is no safe refuge in a wood building.”

The CAC is so concerned with the proposed changes to the national building code that in December it launched a national advocacy campaign.

It is designed to make people aware of plans to allow six-storey wood buildings, McSweeney said from Ottawa.

Mayors, MLAs and MPs will also be contacted.

McSweeney maintained that lost opportunities aren’t driving the offensive.

“This isn’t about market share. It’s about the safety of Canadians,” he said.

McSweeney estimated that the concrete and steel industries have about an 85 per cent share of Canada’s mid-to-highrise construction.

Referring to the changes as a motherhood issue, tied to safety of first responders and occupants, McSweeney said the NBCC cannot be watered-down.

“We want the building code in Canada not to be the minimum standard,” he said.

“We want it to be the gold standard.”

Some of the most important proposals from the CAC include requirements for non-combustible stairwells and elevator shafts to provide safe refuge for occupants and to give firefighters a location to stage operations, non-combustible exterior cladding and non-combustible roofing to prevent fire from spreading to adjacent buildings and the installation of sprinklers throughout the construction phase, not at later stages.

The CAC also wants the protection of firefighters to be included in the NBCC.

However, a fire professional with more than 30 years of firefighting experience and numerous awards for his research shared his opinion.

“Fire almost never leaves the room of origin if sprinklered,” said Surrey Fire Chef Len Garis, who is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Fraser Valley’s Centre for Public Safety,

“Sprinklers do their job.”

He said that finished buildings with working sprinkler systems, be they wood or concrete, behave fairly similarly when fire strikes.

Over the last two years, Garis and some associates have produced several papers examining wood buildings and fire safety, and sprinkler systems in multi-level buildings.

In Garis’s February 2013 paper, Taller Wood Buildings and Fire Safety, statistics showed that injury rates were 51 per cent in sprinklered buildings made of non-combustible material compared to a 42 per cent injury rate in sprinklered buildings built with combustible material.

Concerns about injury and property damage related to amendments to the Ontario Building Code to allow six-storey wood buildings, were addressed in a report by Garis.

“The researchers have examined these concerns and are unable to find evidence to substantiate these concerns,” said the Wood Frame Building and Fire Risk report released in 2012.

The Ontario amendments are similar to B.C.’s 2009 Wood First legislation.

In the course of his research, Garis found that when a building had a working sprinkler system, the fire was contained to the room of origin 96 per cent of the time.

It’s safe to extrapolate a similar response in five and six-storey, sprinklered wood structures, he said.

Garis noted that the proposed NBCC amendments call for sprinklers to be installed in every part of a building, including balconies, long a potential fire hazard.

While doing research in Seattle, Garis learned of hundreds of wood-frame six-storey buildings built in the last two decades.

Seattle fire professionals didn’t considered them any more risky than other structures.

Michael Giroux, president of the Canadian Wood Council, noted that B.C. now has more than 60 five and six-storey wood buildings.

Another 200 or so are under construction, as builders embrace the increased affordability of wood.

The CAC’s demands have nothing to do with safety, Giroux said from Ottawa.

“It’s really about market share,” he said.

He contends that the NBCC amendments are addressing safety concerns.

The code is moving away from a prescriptive path to a performance standard, asking for fire separations to work for two hours, rather than stipulate what material is to be used.

That method allows for new products, like mass timber, to be used.

“Why would we want to jump in front of innovation?” Garis asked.

However, they agree about the dangers of a wood structure under construction, as demonstrated by the Kingston, Ont. fire at a four-storey building in mid-December.

“The most vulnerable situation is when it’s under construction,” Garis said.

“The CWC understands there is a risk and we are working with others through the code development process to ensure this is well-understood and managed,” Giroux said.

last update:Oct 10, 2014

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