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Crews work on a new housing development in Winkler, Manitoba Tuesday, November 26, 2013. Winkler has seen tremendous growth over the past 10 years. (JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail)
Crews work on a new housing development in Winkler, Manitoba Tuesday, November 26, 2013. Winkler has seen tremendous growth over the past 10 years. (JOHN WOODS/The Globe and Mail)

Cement, forestry industries at odds over proposed changes to building code Add to ...

Canada’s cement industry is ramping up its fight against a proposal to allow taller wood buildings, one that’s pitting it against the forestry sector.

The Cement Association of Canada will be holding a press conference in Ottawa Thursday, as it seeks to stop a potential change in the National Building Code of Canada that would increase the maximum height of wood buildings to six storeys from four.

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Such a change would be hazardous because it would increase fire risks, Michael McSweeney, CEO of the Cement Association of Canada, argues.

“We already have a commanding market share of over 85 per cent in buildings taller than four storeys, so it’s not a market share issue for us, it’s a safety issue,” he said in an interview.

He said that wood buildings of this height are generally 10 to 15 per cent cheaper to build, and that taller wood buildings present new challenges for firefighters.

“Typically the people who will live in these wood buildings are the less well off, new Canadians, families that have latchkey kids for example,” he said.

The National Building Code of Canada is a “model” guideline that provinces and municipalities can adopt in part or in whole. (Six storey wood buildings are already allowed in British Columbia, and Quebec City has announced that a 10-storey wood building can go ahead, Mr. McSweeney said.) The Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes, which was established by the National Research Council of Canada, has been conducting a public review of potential changes to the 2010 code. The changes would take effect in 2015.

Beyond the height of wood buildings, Mr. McSweeney wants to see the updated code make it mandatory for stairwells and elevator shafts to be built with non-combustible material, to give firefighters more of a platform to work on in the case of a fire.

“If you just go back in history and look at the fire of London in 1693, the fires in Montreal in 1721 – the King of France at the time decreed no more wood buildings in Montreal because they kept burning down,” Mr. McSweeney said. “We’ve moved away from building with wood as a progressive step and now it looks like we’re taking a regressive step.”

The Forest Products Association of Canada has been pushing to have the code changed to enable the taller wood buildings, making the case that new buildings made from engineered wood products are very durable and exceed fire safety standards.

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