B.C. policy stifled fire safety concerns to promote mass timber highrises, documents show
Briefing note said cities needed 'organizational alignment' from fire officials to put up tall wood buildings
Three years ago, while much of the world hunkered down to wait out the COVID-19 pandemic, the B.C. government set its sights on the sky. It began planning how to fill urban horizons with more highrise living space and office towers using wood as the structural skeleton instead of traditional concrete and steel. It was a lofty goal that's being emulated in cities around the world.
To do it, B.C. created the Office of Mass Timber Implementation (OMTI), the first government office in the world with a broad and powerful mandate to make it easier to build with mass timber — a catch-all term that encompasses a variety of engineered products made up of smaller pieces of wood often held together with adhesives.
But documents obtained by CBC News through an access to information request show the OMTI was so concerned about public discussion of so-called "tall wood" buildings — those higher than six storeys — that it barred municipalities from building them unless they guaranteed their local fire officials would be aligned with planning and building departments regarding any concerns they might have, including fire risks.
'Organizational alignment' policy
That policy is euphemistically referred to as "organizational alignment" in a briefing note written by a director of the OMTI in August 2020 for B.C.'s then-minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing.
The note explains the policy was instituted to "preclude mixed messages about the advantages and trade-offs" of building with mass timber. But the OMTI appears to have been trying to muzzle any messages that didn't align with the ones it was putting out.
"This strategy was based on experience when B.C. increased the allowable height of wood construction from four to six storeys in 2009," the briefing note explained.
"In that case, media coverage featured some conflicting opinions about wood, perhaps even from staff within the same jurisdiction, with planning department staff welcoming a more affordable means of urban densification whereas fire departments were sharing concerns about fire risk," the document said.
Fire officials shared concerns in 2009
Indeed, a number of news stories in 2009 featured fire officials in Victoria and elsewhere expressing concern that provincial building code changes at that time had been rushed without consideration for whether street water flows were sufficient to battle a six-storey wood frame building fire.
Richmond, B.C.'s chief fire prevention officer told CBC News he was concerned their ladder trucks wouldn't be adequate. Two years later, the first six-storey wood frame housing project built under the new code burned to the ground while it was still under construction in Richmond. Firefighters were unable to put out the fire.
In 2020, when the briefing note was written, the OMTI was trying to entice municipalities to construct 12-storey mass timber buildings, double the height that had raised firefighting concerns a decade earlier. Provincial building codes didn't allow it and still don't.
But the latest version of the National Building Code does permit 12-storey mass timber buildings as long as a percentage of the wood is encapsulated with a noncombustible material like drywall. The OMTI relied on the province's authority through its Building Act to approve construction based on the National Building Code.
"The rules of it are very complex," said Rick Cheung, a fire protection engineer with the City of Vancouver. Cheung was also on the Canada-wide committee that reviewed the National Building Code before it was approved.
The complex rules involve precise calculations of wall and ceiling areas, the specific flame-spread rating of the material, and even which direction the walls are facing, before prescribing a percentage of how much of the wood is safe to be exposed.
"It's very difficult to understand 25 per cent versus 30 per cent of a wall allowed to be exposed," Cheung said. "I mean, how can you do that? You can't calculate that. You can't eyeball it."
Cheung says while Vancouver accepted the OMTI's invitation to build higher, the city insisted on its own restriction that absolutely no wood could be exposed in a residential suite, to prevent tenants from removing the drywall encapsulation for esthetics.
Cheung declined to comment on the briefing note obtained by CBC. But speaking generally, he challenges any policy that appears to muzzle firefighters if they disagree with their employers on issues of safety.
"I don't think it's a good thing."
Canadian fire chiefs concerned
Neither does Keven Lefebvre, fire chief for Leduc County, Alberta, and chair of the Codes Committee for the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.
"I would hope and assume that people aren't being, you know, muted," said Lefebvre, who noted he's never heard of anything like the OMTI's "organizational alignment" policy in 42 years of fighting fires.
"I'm not trying to scare people," he said. "We're not anti wood."
But Lefebvre says fire testing and research of tall wood buildings lags behind the approvals to construct them. New products and methods are "outstripping the fire service's ability to train, be prepared and be comfortable with the innovations."
As an example, Lefebvre says some early mass timber components used adhesives that contributed to floors failing in a fire. Even today he says the national building code does not require floors to hold for enough time to allow fire fighters to reach the 12th storey of a tall wood building.
"Currently, that floor performance in other countries is a requirement. We're still developing that in Canada."
Lefebvre says even the latest National Building Code lacks a formal recognition of fire fighter safety as an objective behind what's allowed and what isn't. For example, he says the larger size of mass timber components means a 12-storey tall wood building is actually eight metres higher than one made from concrete.
"That's another 25, 30 feet. We have to go up with all that equipment to get to the top," Lefebvre says of the gear that can weigh as much as 45 kg.
"Certainly we're well above our ability to reach that with our aerial ladder trucks."
Engineering firm conducted fire tests
David Barber, a mass timber specialist and principal at Arup, a global engineering firm headquartered in London, England, was incredulous when told of the OMTI's policy that makes the opportunity to build conditional on the acceptance of it's definition of "organizational alignment."
"That surprises me, if that is actually true," Barber said.
Barber's own company undertook the world's largest mass timber fire experiments to date at a facility outside Paris in 2021. Dubbed "Code Red," the experiments attempted to duplicate worst-case scenarios for an office building fire.
Barber says while there are gaps in understanding how fire behaves under all conditions in mass timber buildings, he sees going higher as an engineering challenge that is neither insurmountable nor inherently unsafe.
He points to the Brock Commons Tallwood House, an 18-storey student residence built at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in 2017. It was built outside of code, using site specific regulations that met engineering, construction and fire safety inspections. All of the structural wood in the building is encapsulated.
Barber says a policy requiring fire officials to mute their concerns is not how the industry operates.
"I don't think anyone in the industry would think that would be a way that timber buildings would be in any way put forward," Barber said.
Industry leader unaware of policy
One of the leading industry voices belongs to the Canadian Wood Council. CEO Rick Jeffery says he was unaware of the OMTI's policy.
"There shouldn't be a need for, you know … muzzling any kinds of officials," he said.
Jeffery says mass timber is the "rising star" of B.C.'s forest industry, in no small part because of its potential to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions involved in building.
According to the province's mass timber action plan, replacing concrete and steel with mass timber products reduces greenhouse gas emissions. B.C. has pledged to reduce its emissions 80 per cent over 2007 levels by 2050.
Jeffery says large scale testing demonstrates tall wood buildings can be built safely.
"The rules are such that they're designed to make sure that they are not going to be kind of catastrophic fire events."
B.C. wants taller wood structures: minister
The minister responsible for the OMTI at the time the briefing note was written says he's never seen it. Ravi Kahlon is now the Minister of Housing and Government House Leader.
"I can't comment further on whatever note you have," Kahlon said, after CBC News provided details of the note and asked for comment.
"I can just share with you that if anyone wants to speak about any issues that they have, we welcome that," Kahlon said. "I think that it's important to have these conversations in the public."
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When asked if a policy requiring "organizational alignment" by municipalities interested in tall wood construction still exists, Kahlon said he wasn't aware of anything like that, noting that the province is spurring even taller mass timber construction.
"Allowing more of the wood to be seen, to be able to be exposed," he said, pointing to international and U.S. building codes that he says allow nine-storey fully exposed mass timber buildings, and up to 18 storeys with some encapsulation.
More safety research needed
Guillermo Rein, a professor of Fire Science at Imperial College in London, England, says encapsulation works, as long as it doesn't fall off in a fire.
"I think there is a consensus that everybody wants beautiful buildings made of mass timber to happen," said Rein, who was one of the investigators involved in the Code Red experiments.
He says they learned mass timber fires can burn hotter and faster than traditional concrete structures.
"I'm actually not saying that designing buildings made of tall timber now is unsafe," Rein said, noting that there are still "essential questions that need to be answered before we can move forward."
- A previous version of this story said that in 2009 fire officials expressed concerns about their ability to battle a six-storey mass timber building fire. It has been updated to clarify that the concerns were about fires in six-storey wood frame buildings.May 02, 2023 3:17 PM PT