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The case against six-storey wooden apartment buildings

February 1st, 2009 · 12 Comments

I’m a few days late in linking to this story, but it’s, as they say, timeless. Sean Holman at Public Eye in Victoria has taken a closer look at the provincial government’s move to change the law to allow wood-frame construction for apartment buildings up to the five- and six-storey level.

Currently, the limit is three, which is why you see so many apartment buildings of that height around the Lower Mainland. They’re cheap and easy to put up. Once a builder goes over three storeys, the current rule is that the construction has to be concrete. (Note: Tessa corrects me in her comments on this post, noting that B.C. actually allows four storeys.)

This is all academic now, since no one is building anything, but it will be relevant once things get going again. If it’s allowed at the same time that cities are under some pressure to allow greater density on sites by developers saying they need it to be able to break even in the current economy, the province could start sprouting six-storey apartments.

Thoughts from all my experts out in the industry?

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  • not running for mayor

    Most of the 4 storey building you see along arterials are wood. The bottom level is usually cement with the top floors all wood. Other cities around the world already allow all wood up to 5 stories and some 6 stories, so really we aren’t developing a new idea. There is nothing wrong with a 5 story wood frame construction in itself. The code can be adjust to ensure the construction is strong enough for earthquakes, fire resistant, and appropriate for our wet climate. The major issue will be public perception due to the leaky condo crisis here. So there won’t be a problem building them so much as a problem selling them.

  • Colton

    Not sure this is a good idea given the problems they have had in Alberta over the last decade. Edmonton (where I’ve been an urban planner for the last 6 years) has been blanketed with 5 storey wooden condos of very poor quality. I would advise no one to buy one. After numerous large, high profile condo fires in these structures and mounting structural and envelope issues The Province of Alberta has just completed a review of their building code and decided to repeal the allowance and is reverting back to no more than 4 storeys for wood. The City of Edmonton and the Emergency Response Department both opposed further allownances for 5 storey wooden buildings. BC would be better off not going down this road. Its a life- safety and cash no-go.

  • Tessa

    Correction: The current code allows for four story wood buildings is the maximum, not three, that was changed in B.C. some time ago although the code in most of the rest of the country is still three.

  • thom

    I think moving to six stories is a great idea mostly because it’s a simple and cost-effective way to increase density and in many places, create a stronger street-wall condition.

    There is certainly a way of doing wood-construction that’s not cheap and shoddy – and as long as architects, developers, builders and officials are aware and monitor the situation, things will work out very well resulting in more affordable housing and increased density – and isn’t that what we need here?

  • Marcella

    Obviously, the concerns have to be worked through. In what I have read (when I worked for Cressey….and for the record, currently I am not working for any development or real estate client) the advocates are not suggesting it would be just 5-6 storeys of wood. Most are talking about more of a hybrid model — wood and steel or wood and concrete.

    Here is an interesting report (albeit from the Canadian Wood Council) online: http://www.cwc.ca/NR/rdonlyres/5A044E73-C28D-486D-8625-42C98548C039/0/MidRisereportbyUrbanArtsl.pdf.

    I’m not really advocating for it one way or another, but I have to say I found Holman’s reporting on this very one sided. I can’t believe every engineer/architect in favour of this in the province, for example, is just wrong or a complete shill of the wood industry.

    Any way, my interest in it is, if we can find a way to do this responsibly, safely, with the right regulations etc., it is more affordable, and may be a part of the puzzle to allow some developers to start more rental projects.

    At the very least, I will be interested to see where the Ministry goes with this. My understanding was they were headed into trial project territory.

    Marcella

  • I am surprised that the government decided to increase the limit from four storeys to six! While 5 storey wood frame is found in parts of the Pacific Northwest, I am not aware of other North American jurisdictions that allow 6 storey construction, other than ‘heavy timber’ construction. For those of you who are interested, this is different than ‘platform’ construction or ‘balloon’ construction. (Now there’s a new term for you!)

    I personally would have preferred an increase from 4 to 5 storeys, which could have been tested out for a number of years, before considering any increase to 6 storeys.

    My main concern is ‘differential shrinkage’. Wood shrinks but concrete block and other forms of masonry do not. I also worry about increased fire risks, especially during construction when the sprinkler system has not yet been installed or activated.

    I’m also concerned that the province may have moved too quickly on this; the legislation may be approved before the ‘best practices’ have been developed. (I can’t believe I’m saying this…a government moved too quickly on a Building Code change!)

  • Not Running for Mayor

    Michael, I beleive the new regulations are in fact for only 5 stories in wood, they would allow for 6 storie buildings of wood but that is when the ground floor is concrete, so still only 5 wood.
    I think everyone is in agreement that the issue isn’t the extra floor/floors but how the code is set.

  • MB

    You can do amazing things with modern timber framing, and using products like glue-laminated lumber and Paralam with steel bracing and reinforced joinery affords great flexibility in design and lower costs than cast-in-place concrete in medum-rise buildings.

  • Not Running for Mayor – The new regulation are not only for five stories of wood. They are for six storeys of wood. No allowance is made for the ground floor being concrete (although that is what happens in Portland and Oregan – which is referred to as five on one).

  • A. G. Tsakumis

    Let me chime in to help my pal, Ms. Munro.

    The reason Sean’s superb coverage has been “one-sided” is for all the reasons that any of us who have built such buildings in the past, have recognized as the problems. And for EVERY reason cited by the oracle, Mr. Geller.

    Six storey wood-frame buildings are a huge mistake, period. There is no other place in N.America that does this. The fact that the ground floor is concrete means nothing. It’s a flex issue for anyone who has worked with a toolbelt and understands. Wood just isn’t made to hold up like concrete. And regardless of the amt of fire retardant qualities applied, it will not hold it’s properties over the years and could end up in a greater state of decomposition because of it. (I’ve seen this in Atlanta in a four storey building)

  • P. A. K.

    I recently attended a seminar at which an engineer from Vancouver showed slides of “wood” buildings as tall as 8 stories. That one was a residential building in London.
    That said however, this building was not stick framed and could hardly be said to be cheaply built:
    all of the walls and floors were of built up of factory assembled plank construction, as well, the walls carried through from the top floor to the ground meaning that the demising walls were effectively structural.
    One advantage of this method was that the time spent in construction on site was drastically reduced: on the order of a third of the time or less that a cast-in-place reinforced concrete or steel building of equivalent size would take.
    Another advantage of this particular type of construction is that engineered wood is less affected by moisture and thick planks typically do not burn well (ref. heavy timber construction).
    However I doubt that this is the type of construction we will get under this new relaxation of the code. If you want the technical viewpoint you need t talk with Teddy Lai MAIBC at GHL code consultants; he literally wrote the book (code that is).