Taller wood con­dos may lower costs

Build­ing code changes are ex­am­ined

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - New Condos - CLAIRE YOUNG

Cal­gary builders are keep­ing a close eye on pos­si­ble changes to build­ing codes al­low­ing taller condo build­ings made of wood — which could lower con­struc­tion costs and boost af­ford­abil­ity for buy­ers. “There is def­i­nitely a mar­ket for af­ford­able apart­ment prod­uct in Cal­gary, par­tic­u­larly in the in­ner city,” says Doug Owens, gen­eral man­ager of mul­ti­fam­ily for Brook­field Homes. “If con­struc­tion costs are truly 25 per cent less than con­crete and steel con­struc­tion, this would rep­re­sent a sub­stan­tial im­prove­ment in af­ford­abil­ity.”

The na­tional build­ing code cur­rently only al­lows build­ings of up to four storeys to be made of wood frames due to fire safety con­cerns.

Any­thing higher must be framed with non-com­bustible ma­te­ri­als such as steel or con­crete. But pro­posed changes to the code would al­low wood­frame build­ings of up to six storeys, or 18 me­tres.

In­tro­duc­ing mid-rise, wood-frame res­i­den­tial and mixed-use struc­tures would cre­ate “a new level of af­ford­abil­ity in Cal­gary” for condo apart­ments, says Owens.

Cal­gary builders and de­vel­op­ers gath­ered re­cently to learn about pro­posed changes to the na­tional build­ing code — and what B.C.’s ex­pe­ri­ence has been build­ing the new form, which it in­tro­duced in 2009.

Hosted by the Cana­dian Home Builders’ As­so­ci­a­tion-Al­berta, the ses­sion also in­cluded the City of Cal­gary’s take on the idea of in­tro­duc­ing such build­ings to the res­i­den­tial mix.

The ben­e­fits of chang­ing the code in­clude bet­ter af­ford­abil­ity for buy­ers, quicker con­struc­tion for de­vel­op­ers and low­ered con­struc­tion costs, said the pre­sen­ters.

Wood-frame, mid-rise con­struc­tion saves about 25 per cent com­pared to steel-frame build­ings and 30 per cent com­pared to con­crete con­struc­tion, said Sukh Johal, tech­ni­cal ad­viser with Wood­Works B.C. — a project of the Cana­dian Wood Coun­cil that seeks to in­crease the use of wood in con­struc­tion.

When ar­chi­tect Vivek Menon was work­ing on a mid-rise, wood-frame project in Kam­loops, he found a 50 per cent in­crease in yield, with a 30 per cent sav­ings in build­ing costs.

Trades­peo­ple were eas­ier to find for tim­ber con­struc­tion — and with the shorter de­liv­ery time, there were less car­ry­ing and in­surance costs, he said.

The up­per floors sold first and at a pre­mium, while the mid­dle floors took longer to sell.

In B.C. and other earth­quake­prone ar­eas, the in­creased flex­i­bil­ity of the struc­tures means they with­stand seis­mic ac­tiv­ity well. A seven-storey build­ing — six floors of wood above one steel level — was con­structed and suc­cess­fully with­stood a shake-ta­ble test in Ja­pan in 2009.

Re­search is also be­ing con­ducted by the Na­tional Re­search Coun­cil and var­i­ous af­fil­i­ated groups on other ar­eas of con­cern par­tic­u­lar to the con­struc­tion ma­te­rial, said Ineke Van Zee­land, man­ager of codes and stan­dards for Cana­dian Wood Coun­cil.

Man­ag­ing sound trans­fer, pro­tect­ing the taller build­ing en­ve­lope from in­creased wind and weather — and not the least, en­sur­ing fire pro­tec­tion dur­ing con­struc­tion and habi­ta­tion — are im­por­tant re­search topics.

Although the na­tional code is reg­u­larly re­vised, it is each pro­vin­cial government that has the re­spon­si­bil­ity over con­struc­tion through its own pro­vin­cial build­ing codes.

The pro­posed changes to the na­tional code will go to pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion, likely in the fall. The ear­li­est they could be passed would be in 2015 — and it of­ten takes a fur­ther year for na­tional code changes to be adopted by the prov­inces.

While places such as Van­cou­ver, Win­nipeg and Toronto still have mid-rise, wood-frame build­ings that were con­structed in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies be­fore lower thresh­olds were es­tab­lished, it wasn’t un­til 2009 that B.C. fast-tracked a change in its build­ing code to al­low wood-frame res­i­den­tial con­struc­tion to six storeys, or 18 me­tres, from a height of four storeys.

Since then, many B.C. builders have taken up the new form. So far, 130 projects have been pro­posed un­der the new reg­u­la­tions, with 61 per cent in the lower main­land and an­other 26 per cent on Van­cou­ver Is­land.

It’s im­por­tant to note there are dif­fer­ent con­cerns when build­ing mid-rise com­pared to walk-up build­ings, Johal said.

“Is six storeys the same as a three-storey times two? It looks the same, but it’s not,” said Johal.

An in­te­grated de­sign team is needed from the be­gin­ning, he said, adding sprin­kler sys­tems are in­stalled at the front end, not near the end of con­struc­tion. Deck fram­ing is also af­fected, as is stud spac­ing and the place­ment of fire­walls.

Build­ing taller with wood means that other con­struc­tion ma­te­ri­als need to be as sim­i­lar as pos­si­ble be­cause wood shrinks up to 10 cen­time­tres in mid-rise build­ings in the months af­ter con­struc-

Claire Young’s col­umn

F11 tion. “Shrink­age is the big­gest is­sue,” said Johal. “We rec­om­mend fac­tory-built, pre-fab­ri­cated pan­els.”

This also re­duces the amount of weather ex­po­sure such ma­te­ri­als re­ceive on site.

Dave Turn­bull, prod­uct devel­op­ment man­ager for Land­mark Group, at­tended the same CHBA ses­sion when it was held in Ed­mon­ton. He said Land­mark is in­ter­ested in pur­su­ing mid-rise, wood-frame con­struc­tion — in part be­cause the com­pany has a plant to pre-fab­ri­cate con­struc­tion pan­els.

“It fills a niche,” said Turn­bull.

“There’s def­i­nitely an af­ford­abil­ity story to this. I think with the ex­pe­ri­ence in B.C., there have been a lot of lessons learned. We’ll prob­a­bly look at do­ing this.”

Be­cause Land­mark has built walk-up, four-storey build­ings as well as high­rises in Ed­mon­ton, the com­pany would look at launch­ing a mid-rise there first.

“That’s also where we have our panel­iza­tion plant,” said Turn­bull.

“We build all of our homes in Ed­mon­ton through that panel­iza­tion plant. There are some real ad­van­tages to do­ing this with a panel­iza­tion plant rather than hav­ing ev­ery­thing ex­posed to the el­e­ments. It goes quite a bit quicker, so you have less ex­po­sure to van­dal­ism and ar­son.”

While it will be a few years be­fore mid-rise, wood-frame build­ings could be seen in Cal­gary as a reg­u­lar form, the city is in­ter­ested in fast­track­ing demon­stra­tion projects in the mean­time as an “alternativ­e so­lu­tion.”

“As long as we meet the in­tents of the code, we’re able to look at var­i­ous op­tions. We can see a model of what is pos­si­ble at the na­tional level and we can look to build on that here in Al­berta and in Cal­gary,” said Kevin Grif­fiths of the city's devel­op­ment and build­ing ap­provals de­part­ment.

“We’re open to­day to sit­ting down and dis­cussing what’s pos­si­ble.”

Cal­gary Her­ald/files

An artist’s ren­der­ing of a pos­si­ble 10-storey ver­sion of the Wood In­no­va­tion and De­sign Cen­tre in Prince Ge­orge, B.C. — ex­pected to be the tallest wood build­ing in North Amer­ica and pos­si­bly the world.

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