After many years of advocacy, the Ontario Building Code was amended to allow the construction of six-storey wood-frame construction on Jan. 1.
This change was welcomed as one way of increasing the production of badly needed homes at more affordable prices, particularly in urban centres throughout the province.
It was expected that this change would result in many applications for building permits using this type of construction, but an informal survey of building departments throughout the province suggests that this is not the case.
While we thought it was important to address this issue, we at RESCON believe there are a number of scenarios that are playing out right now in Ontario that properly explain where we’re at since Jan. 1.
- No allowance was made for a “feeling out” period: Traditionally, builders, once all of the requirements are published, need sufficient lead time to understand and adapt to regulatory and code changes. Builders in B.C. required over a year to embrace similar changes in their building code in 2009, but now they have completed or are building hundreds of mid-rise residential building using wood-frame construction.
- Best practice guidelines for fire safety during construction: The absence of these guidelines, which are necessary to ensure that regulators, developers/builders, insurers and first responders have a common understanding of the measures to be considered in order to reduce the risk of fires during construction were to have been available when the changes to the code were implemented on Jan.1. The delay in the publication of this guideline has created uncertainty, as in its absence there is no foundation for developing a clear and common understanding of the financial impact of, or understanding of the impact of the recommended practices that should be followed. They are still not available but are now expected to be published this fall.
- Progress: Even though Ontario has a long history of constructing buildings with wood and have an abundant supply of indigenous raw material, the province has never developed the type of ”wood culture” that is found where this type of construction is widely used around the world, including the U.K., Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. There is no single reason for this but some of the factors relate to: costs associated with manufacturing and transportation to turn raw material into useable products; absence of skilled labour; and historically significant catastrophic fires in North America which wiped out large portions of cities and settlements in the early part of this century. These fires influenced the development of building codes which discriminated against the use of wood construction in mid- and high-rise buildings. Advanced technologies affecting the manufacturing, use and design of wood components coupled with a heightened awareness of environmental issues relating to sustainability, resiliency and reduction in carbon have all contributed to the context which compelled the recent changes to the OBC.
- OBC changes: Historically, major amendments to the OBC are issued on Jan. 1 to coincide with the normal code cycle. This change occurred between normal code cycles.
- Regulations: Ontario, unlike a number of other provinces, does not have a single regulatory authority that covers all aspects of the building process from design through construction. This situation meant that the regulatory language and construction guidelines from other jurisdictions developed for mid-rise wood construction could not be used as they are not compatible with Ontario’s regulatory structure.
A brighter future
Despite the wait for mid-rise wood-frame construction in Ontario, there are good signs in Canada.
First of all, wood in its manufactured form is now being used or considered for mid-rise and high-rise construction across Canada. Quebec just launched a a 60-page technical guide on building wooden buildings up to 12 storeys high. They will be allowing the construction of wooden high-rises.
Secondly, designers, engineers and industry stakeholders continue to educate themselves about the use of wood by turning out in record numbers to symposiums on wood construction put on by their professional or industry associations.
Thirdly, B.C. mid-rise construction is now primarily with wood.
These three factors lead me to believe that 2016-2017will see a dramatic increase in the use of wood construction for multi-residential mid-rise construction throughout Ontario.And when we get it done, it will be created to the satisfaction of all stakeholders.
Michael Steele, B. Tech. (C.M.), is the Director of Technical Standards at RESCON. Reach him at email@example.com or @RESCONtech.
CORRECTION: Tech Corner's original post said that the Quebec government had implemented a change to its building code to allow wood-frame construction up to 12 storeys high. Quebec has actually launched a 60-page technical guide on building up to 12 storeys with wood construction. We regret the error.