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The Hot Debate: Are Timber Towers Really Safe?

The innovations to create taller wood buildings are in place. But is our collective mindset there? While people are comfortable living in two or three story wood houses, are they prepared to call 6-storey plus timber towers home? And what about industry experts? What are their opinions about constructing taller wooden structures?

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The Cement Association of Canada (CAC) claims concrete is more solid and durable than wood because it doesn’t expand or contract. They also raise the argument that concrete is more allergen-free than mold-producing wood frames and provides acoustic privacy. More importantly, they maintain that concrete buildings offer a better ROI as well as lower repair and maintenance costs. Finally, they believe that since concrete is more familiar and solid, people feel safer living in these types of buildings. They use a recent fire in Kingston, Ontario to illustrate their points.

In December 2013, a major fire on the construction site of a wood high-rise in Kingston caused more than 20 million dollars in damage. A month before the fire, Ontario’s Housing Minister stated that Bill 13, An Act to Amend the Building Code Act to increase wood buildings from four storeys to six storeys, is premature. Housing Minister Linda Jeffrey believes the Bill could pose significant safety issues for both residents and emergency responders and needs further debate.

However, wood lobbyists maintain wood buildings are safe. Some use the example of a camp fire. To build a fire, you must start with small pieces of wood, then work your way up to logs because bigger pieces of wood burn slowly. They maintain that the mass timber panels used in wood construction act the same way campfire logs do—it’s hard for them to catch on fire, and when they do burn, it’s slow and predictable.

Supporters of Bill 13 also state that new restrictions for wood buildings will ensure everyone’s safety. They include:

  • Sprinklers on the outside of buildings with balconies.
  • Non-combustible materials on the building’s face.
  • Increased fire-separation ratings and fire-suppressing materials.
  • Staging areas on construction sites so firefighters have better access.

The wood building on the Kingston construction site didn’t have all of the safety measures in place at the time of the fire, this reinforces the argument that wood buildings are most at risk during the construction phase. Once built, wood buildings are thought to be just as safe as concrete or steel.

This debate is far from over, but the battles are being won. In late March, the Ontario government drafted a proposal to allow for the construction of six storey wood-frame buildings. This proposed change aims to create mid-rise buildings that would produce more affordable housing options, as well as new jobs every year.

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