A federal commission that reviews building codes will soon tell provinces to start allowing 6-storey wood structures, much like the one that burned down in Kingston, Ont., last month.

Currently most provinces only allow wood buildings to be four storeys high, but the commission chair said they also want tougher safety regulations to lessen the risks of fire.

663 Princess

The private residence at 663 Princess St. in Kingston, seen here during construction in November 2013, burned down one month later. (Facebook)

In December, a major fire on the construction site of a wood high-rise caused more than $20 million in damage.

"What happened in Kingston ... is a building that doesn't have all the fire safety and precautionary measures in place yet," said Philip Rizcallah, manager of the Canadian Codes Centre at the National Research Council.

Rizcallah also chairs a 40-person commission that oversees the review of the country's building and fire codes. Comprised of industry representatives, regulators and members of the general public, it reviews codes every five years to account for changes in construction and new safety measures.

 "The new proposals will allow an option for users to go up to six storeys with combustible construction," said Rizcallah, but with stricter regulations proposed for fire codes.

Those restrictions are:

  • Sprinklers on the outside of the building if there are balconies.
  • Non-combustible materials on the faces of buildings.
  • More fire-suppressing materials and increased fire-separation ratings.
  • Staging areas so firefighters have better access to construction sites.

Rizcallah said the goal of the recommendations is to help mitigate fires during the construction phase.

"Now it's not going to eliminate every cause of fire," said Rizcallah, "You can have a fire in a one-storey building or a fire in a 50-storey building. The fire is still going to occur."

Kingston mayor hesitant on wood

But despite these changes, Kingston’s mayor is more sceptical of wood buildings.

'I'm not an engineer but common sense tells me, concrete is better' - Mark Gerretsen, Mayor of Kingston 

"Wood is an extremely accessible resource and comes at a cheaper cost," said Mark Gerretsen. "I'm not an engineer but common sense tells me, concrete is better."

One month after the fire, the city is still repairing streets and power lines. Buildings have been torn down, homes have been boarded up and dozens of residents have been displaced from their homes.
Fire officials who originally estimated a total damage estimate of $20 million now say that estimate is "conservative". 

The commission still needs to convince the provinces to adopt these changes next fall.  Historically the provinces have adopted the bulk of the NRC's proposals. 

Plus, British Columbia has allowed six-storey wood buildings since 2009.

If provinces adopt the proposed changes to fire codes, people could start seeing six-storey wood buildings in their communities by 2015.