Wood-framed buildings: a small building code change could have a big impact

Photo credit: National Research Council Canada

Bill 13, An Act to Amend the Building Code Act, 1992, passed its first reading in the provincial legislature on February 27, 2013. This unassuming private member’s bill, introduced by Nipissing MPP Victor Fedeli, proposes changing Ontario’s Building code to allow wood-framed construction in mid-rise buildings up to six storeys (up from the current four storeys).

While it may not seem like much, this small change has a potentially large impact. The bill aims to boost Ontario’s forestry industry and lower the cost of constructing mid-rise buildings. If things go according to plan, this should stimulate development of mid-rise buildings, and increase demand for Ontario’s lumber.

If it passes, Bill 13 may also positively impact the carbon footprint of new development in Ontario. There is a growing body of research indicating that building with wood produces less greenhouse gas than building with concrete and steel. Manufacturing wood-based building materials tends to be less energy intensive than that of other building materials. Using wood also avoids the release of large amounts of CO2 from the chemical reactions necessary to make cement.

When British Columbia made similar changes to its building code in 2009, it saw an immediate positive impact on the local economy. Building with wood framing is 10-15% cheaper than building with poured concrete or steel; allowing wood-framed construction in taller buildings makes mid-rise development projects more attractive to developers. This coincides nicely with the City of Toronto’s vision for intensifying employment and residential development on core avenues, which focuses specifically on increasing mid-rise development. Realizing this vision will also help reduce future transportation emissions by locating new jobs and new residences along major transit corridors with capacity to serve additional riders. A recent report by Paul Bedford, formerly Chief Planner for the City of Toronto, identifies this building code change as a critical step towards realizing Toronto’s vision.

Key performance standards from Toronto's Avenues and Mid-Rise Buildings Study

Because of the lower costs of construction, this change could also boost housing affordability with savings of up to $25,000 per residential suite. The proposed change could also help municipalities increase density without dramatically altering the character of existing neighbourhoods.

Bill 13’s small change to the building code clearly has the potential to yield sizable environmental, economic, and social benefits. Having passed its first reading, it will now be debated during a second reading and then reviewed in committee. While issues and concerns like alternative fire safety measures will no-doubt be raised, the potential benefits are significant enough that the bill should be given serious consideration. In fact, the bill has a broad range of supporters in the forestry sector, the development industry, and beyond because of its multiple benefits.

What do you think? Is wood-frame construction up to six stories safe? Does it offer sustainability benefits compared to traditional construction methods? Let us know what you think in the comments below.

With research and writing assistance from Rebecca Mallinson.


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One Response to Wood-framed buildings: a small building code change could have a big impact

  1. Andrea says:

    What about the pressures on Ontario’s forests of supplying the increased lumber? Was deforestation factored in to the carbon calculations and environmental analyses of this change?

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