Proponents of wood frame construction for mid-rise apartment buildings up to six storeys tall are encountering resistance to their construction technique from competing suppliers such as concrete construction and steel. The controversy has sparked debates that have enveloped two nationwide construction and production associations, and numerous cities looking to revise their official plans.
Wood frame construction has emerged as a promising construction material as cities look to increase their urban densities through the use of mid-rise buildings along key transportation routes. Mid-rise buildings have the advantage of being more in human scale, and able to be built up to the sidewalk without a pedestal building, as is the case in high-rise construction.
However, six-storey buildings may not offer developers the return on their investment they are looking for, unless construction costs are reduced. Here, wood frame construction offers considerable benefits, being 20% cheaper to build than concrete or steel frame construction.
This hasn’t sat well with groups such as the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association. Earlier this year, the association ran full-page advertisements in newspapers across Canada questioning the safety and environmental sustainability of wood-frame construction.
“While economics and environment are both valid considerations in construction, what about public safety?” said Paul Hargest, CCMPA president said in a media release. “Ask anyone where they would rather be in the event of a fire — a structure made of wood, or one built with materials such as masonry or concrete?”
Wood council builds its defence
The claims were challenged by associations representing lumber producers. Michael Giroux, president of the Canadian Wood Council, stated, “The truth about building with wood is that it is safe, costs less, is versatile, meets code and has a lighter environmental impact. It’s incredibly important for Canadians across a wide spectrum to understand these facts, particularly as we find the construction industry evolving and incorporating new and exciting wood technologies into buildings.”
James Gorman, president and CEO of the Council of Forest Industries, went further, telling the Vancouver Sun, “The Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association has taken the rather desperate measure of placing full-page newspaper ads.
“We would encourage the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association to compete on the basis of the attributes of their products and not depend on highly misleading attack ads intended to misinform Canadians about their forest industry.”
Hargest stood by CCMPA’s advertisements.
“We released these ads to promote consumer awareness about the issue and the national building code. Most consumers, we find, just assume that they go into a building and they expect it to be safe. They don’t know. I don’t see myself as a fear-monger; I just want consumers to be informed, and we’ve taken it upon ourselves to educate the public so that they have all the information they need to make their own decisions.”
A need for a variety of tools
An attempt was made to bring both sides together at the Canadian Apartment Symposium Series back in May. Unfortunately, representatives of the CCMPA had to send their regrets due to scheduling difficulties. However, the panel discussion on wood frame construction was well-attended, and had a number of experts on stage, including Paul Bedford, former chief planner for the City of Toronto, and a principal at Paul Bedford and Associates.
“Building housing on main streets represents a long-established tradition in the cities and towns of Ontario,” Bedford stated in a report to the Canadian Wood Council, “but the housing market has generally catered to either high-rise or low-rise construction. This has started to change with mid-rise development appearing in locations that can justify high construction and land costs. It is important to grow this market so that multiple benefits can be achieved.”
The time has come for wood
It should be noted that six-storey wood frame construction has been in place for years. British Columbia alone has more than a hundred such buildings built or under construction.
The issue of fire safety was addressed by Len Garis, the chief of the Surrey, B.C. fire department, when he said in a December 2013 press release, “The safety level of buildings, once completed and equipped with the required protection systems under the building code, would be equivalent to that of any similar building constructed with other materials.”
Six-storey wood frame construction is coming into its own. It is safe, and a promising new tool in the toolkit of developers and urban planners as they seek to increase densities in our cities. The concrete and steel industry need not be afraid, since cities are looking to grow in a number of ways, and more options means more growth for everyone.
Concrete high-rise construction has its place in particular settings, and wood frame mid-rise construction has its place in others. Ensuring both tools are available benefits everyone.
Derek Lobo is the founder and CEO of SVN Rock Advisors Inc., a real estate brokerage with over 30 years of experience in helping investors make the most out of buying, selling, and renovating purpose-built apartment buildings. Learn more about SVN Rock Advisors Inc., Brokerage on their website at www.SVNRock.ca.