The forest industry's vision of pushing wood-structure buildings higher into the sky looks set to get a major boost.
The federal body that establishes the standards for building codes is preparing to raise the cap on wood-structure heights to six storeys from four storeys, according to industry officials.
The decision, expected later this year or in early 2015, opens up a world of opportunities for a once-moribund forest industry seeking to revitalize itself by extending its reach into innovative products and conquering new export markets. The sector's goal is to build 10-storey structures by 2010 and there is a growing global movement that says 30 floors and perhaps even more are not out of the question.
"All of the things we're hearing, everything we have seen is that – yes – [the change in building height] will go ahead," said an industry insider.
A review every five years by the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes to upgrade the national building codes is wrapping up soon and is expected to approve an increase to six storeys from four, Paul Lansbergen, vice-president of regulations and partnerships at the Forest Products Association of Canada, said.
"A decision on the inclusion of wood in mid-rise construction for up to six storeys in the 2015 version of the National Building Code of Canada will be taken in March, 2015," Natural Resources Canada spokeswoman Jacinthe Perras said in an e-mail.
The ministry has provided funding to the National Research Council for research into wood-framed building systems so that Canada's building codes are based on the most up-to-date scientific information, she said.
"This research is essential to support jobs in the wood products industry and protect the health and safety of Canadians."
The ministry helped fund the publication of a technical guide to help familiarize builders with "tall wood" construction and actively promotes the development of taller buildings made principally of wood.
"This broadens the market for the use of wood in the domestic market. It also give us more credibility when working with other jurisdictions – such as China – to convince them to work with wood," said Mr. Lansbergen.
The revisions to the National Building Code of Canada are not binding but act as influential models for the building code in each province.
Last week, Ontario raised the cap on timber structures to six floors from four. British Columbia – in the vanguard of the tall-wood movement – changed the code to six from four in 2009. Quebec also has provisions for six-storey wood buildings, but they are limited in scope.
Canada's lumber sector is keen to see more widespread adoption – by architects, engineers and developers – of new building materials and techniques such as engineered or cross-laminated timber made from layers of softwood that are glued together to make thick panels for construction.
Proponents say the "super-plywood" is as strong or stronger than concrete and steel, in addition to being cheaper, fire-resistant and far more environmentally friendly than the standard materials.
But Canada's wood-construction guru Michael Green says the change in Canada's building code to six from four storeys concerns mostly lightweight wood-frame structures using traditional 2x4 materials. Advances in wood-products technology and construction techniques now make it possible to build true high-rise towers of 30 or more floors but the regulatory framework is not keeping pace with those changes, he said in an interview.
"There is a whole new wave of buildings that are much bigger and higher," he said.
Mr. Green – a Vancouver-based architect – has submitted a design for a 16-to-18-storey student housing tower on the University of British Columbia's Vancouver Point Grey campus that he says will be the world's tallest wood building.
"Many of the buildings done to date around the world have been in the public interest. Really to get these building technologies out there they have to be accepted by the private sector," he said.