Ontario revisiting wood-frame building rules

Proposed Ontario Building Code changes would allow developers to build up to six storeys
Monday, March 31, 2014
By Michelle Ervin

Ontario is inching closer to permitting wood-frame building construction of up to six storeys with the publishing of proposed building code changes on March 20.

Currently, wood-frame building construction in Ontario is restricted to four storeys. The proposed building code changes would not only support the provincial government’s goals of urban intensification and main street redevelopment, but also promote affordable housing, environmentally friendly buildings and construction, and the province’s forestry industry, according to the regulatory registry posting.

British Columbia’s move to permit the material in mid-rise construction back in 2009 put the issue on the map in Canada. Now Quebec is developing regulatory requirements for potentially lifting its four-storey limit. And contemplated proposals for the 2015 model National Building Code would facilitate wood-frame building construction of up to six storeys.

Ontario has proceeded cautiously on the file, confirms Mike Maka, spokesperson for the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing. The province is aiming to increase opportunities for builders and designers without sacrificing stringent fire-safety standards that protect both the public and fire personnel.

Wood-frame building construction of up to six storeys would be required to meet existing standards for wood-frame construction, as well as additional new measures.

Existing standards include one-hour fire separations throughout the buildings, fire hose cabinets and standpipes on each floor, and two means of exiting the buildings.

Additional new measures would limit building height of the top floor to 18 metres from the first floor, and limit building area to 25 per cent of that of non-combustible residential buildings and 42 per cent of that of non-combustible office buildings. Other new requirements would include combustion-resistant roof cladding and non-combustible or combustion-resistant exterior cladding.

A National Research Council study testing how different wood structure types respond to fire, due to be published in April 2014, is expected to further inform Ontario’s proposed building code changes. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing would also work with the Ministry of Labour and Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services to address the particular fire risks associated with wood buildings during the construction phase.

Under the current Ontario Building Code, builders are faced with a choice between building stacked townhouses or high-rise condominiums, says Ontario Home Builders’ Association (OHBA) CEO Joe Vaccaro. When working with concrete, most builders want at least 10 to 12 storeys for the project to be financially viable, he says. (Six-storey wood-frame building construction is estimated to save as much as 10 per cent over the cost of concrete or steel construction.)

“This is an exciting proposal,” Vaccaro says. “This provides a new building option, a new housing option, a new rental housing option, a new mixed-use option, for our members, for the community at large, for consumers and for municipalities.”

The province’s proposed made-in-Ontario solution contains some unique provisions, he says. One is that stairwells would need to be constructed from non-combustible materials. Another is that the outside of balconies would need to be outfitted with sprinkler systems, regardless of their depth.

Unlike B.C., which restricts six-storey wood-frame construction to residential uses, Vaccaro says that Ontario is proposing to permit wood frames in mixed-use buildings.

The OHBA is hoping to see the first application for a six-storey wood-frame development before the end of the year.

Wood WORKS! Ontario also welcomed the move, saying in a press release that its goal is to ensure that wood products and building systems are represented fairly in the building code. The Cement Association of Canada has previously cautioned against putting cost savings ahead of safety.

Ontario held public consultations on lifting the four-storey limit on wood-frame construction in 2011, and stakeholder consultations on the proposed building code changes occurred in October 2013.

The province is now accepting public input on the proposed building code changes until May 4.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of CondoBusiness magazine.

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