Taking wood frame construction to new heights

Developers urge Ontario to lift four-storey building limit
Monday, June 24, 2013
By Michelle Ervin

The Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD) has renewed its call on the Ontario government to raise the height limit of wood frame structures from four storeys to six. It’s a move proponents believe will encourage the construction of affordable, family-friendly mid-rise condos; however, opponents caution the move could compromise safety.

Paul Bedford, a former chief planner for the City of Toronto, prepared a report, Unlocking the Potential for Mid-Rise Buildings: Six-Storey Wood Structures, on behalf of BILD. In it, he makes the case for amending the Ontario Building Code (OBC) accordingly, as a way for the province to meet the intensification objectives in its growth plan.

For their part, municipalities across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) are encouraging the construction of mid-rise, mixed-use buildings on designated main streets through their planning policies, notes Bedford. These designated main streets are referred to as “avenues” in the City of Toronto’s official plan, which was adopted in 2002, and came into effect in 2006. Since then, approximately 25 per cent of the total number of new units proposed in the city have been located on avenues.

“The mid-rise market is coming into its own but this (regulatory change) could really kick-start it,” said Bedford at the recent Land & Development conference in Toronto.

However, the economics of mid-rise development, it seems, has been a barrier for many developers.

The current height restriction on wood frame construction is one deterrent, said Bedford. Concrete must be used to build structures greater than four storeys, which is more expensive. He also cited development charges, parkland dedication requirements and tax policy as obstacles to mid-rise development.

Changes to the provincial building code alone, allowing wood frame construction up to six storeys, would result in construction savings ranging from 10 to 20 per cent or more, according to Bedford’s investigation.

Wood frame construction of up to six storeys is not without precedent; British Columbia amended its building code to allow it in 2009.

However, the Ontario government already contemplated following B.C.’s example during the course of its consultations on the revised building code, released in November 2012. Ultimately, the province decided not to increase the height limit on wood frame construction, as the Cement Association of Canada (CAC) recently pointed out.

“It is critical for the effectiveness, credibility and reputation of the Ontario Building Code process that any proposed changes to the OBC go through the proper code development process,” said the association’s president and CEO, Michael McSweeney, in a recent press release.

The CAC was responding to renewed calls for an increase in the height limit on wood frame construction, cautioning against a move that could “put cost savings ahead of safety.”

In the critical press release, the CAC cited a 2011 fire that destroyed a six-storey wood frame building while it was under construction in Richmond, B.C.

Steven Street, a technical advisor with Wood Works! Ontario, acknowledged at the Land & Development conference that wood is most vulnerable during the construction phase. That’s why, he said, it’s important to work with fire departments to minimize that risk, by taking measures such as ensuring fire departments have adequate access to sites and water supplies once on-site.

“There isn’t any lessening of code objectives to let (the regulatory changes) happen,” said Street. “It still has to meet the same objectives that every other building material does – performance-wise (and) safety-wise.”

Leith Moore, vice-president of development at Sorbara Development Group, told attendees of the conference that there’s an opportunity to ‘piggyback’ the National Building Code, which will be updated in 2015. The ability to construct up to six storeys in wood, he said, would encourage developers to build in places other than on high demand highrise sites and, therefore, increase affordability for consumers.

“It’s more than townhouses, less than highrise, transit-friendly and I think it will be family-friendly,” said Moore.

Michelle Ervin is the editor of CondoBusiness magazine.

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