Firefighters 'Cautiously Optimistic' About 6-Story Wood Buildings

Originally published by: Edmonton JournalMay 27, 2015

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Fire officials are cautiously optimistic new six-storey wood frame apartment buildings can be safe, even in the wake of Friday’s devastating condo blaze.

One man suffered minor smoke inhalation from the Clareview fire and hundreds of people had their homes destroyed. Fire officials say they were lucky the blaze didn’t start during the night.

It burned up the side and into the attic of a four-storey wood-frame building, the highest allowed under the provincial building code for decades.

On May 1, developers seeking a cheaper, quicker building option were granted the right to build six storeys and one local architect said he already has two buildings in the design stage.

Russell Croome, deputy fire chief of public safety, said his first reaction to the proposed six-storey wood-frame buildings was: “Wow, that can’t even be possible.”

But the new code includes critical safety measures. Six-storey buildings need sprinklers on every balcony and throughout attic and crawl spaces, in addition to in the units. They must have non-combustible siding, and the building can’t be designed as a seniors home or hospital, where residents would need a longer exit time.

“As long as the building is being maintained, we shouldn’t be too bad,” said Croome.

Friday’s fire was typical for a building without those measures. Someone smoking on a balcony tossed the butt. The cigarette kept burning and lit the siding on fire, which burned up through the soffits and into the attic.

Flames compromised pipes in the sprinkler system and because it started on the outside, it didn’t trigger smoke alarms. A passerby saw the growing blaze, pulled the alarm inside, then ran down the hallways banging on doors. He even pulled one person out of the shower before fleeing the flames himself, said Croome.

“He was really going wild trying to help out,” Croome said. The man suffered smoke inhalation but was treated on scene.

Since 2009, Alberta’s building code requires all wood-frame buildings to have sprinklers on the balcony or non-flammable siding.

The worst case scenarios with new six-storey wood frame building would be a fire like the 2007 MacEwan blaze, that took out a four-storey building under construction and 18 adjacent duplexes. Without enough water in the municipal system to fight the blaze, the heat threatened to light homes 70 to 90 metres away.

If a six-storey construction project like that goes up, it will be “exponentially” worse, Croome said.

The City of Calgary allowed six-storey wood frame buildings since November with strict construction-site fire safety plans. Sites require more frequent inspections and tighter rules on smoking, garbage disposal, oversight for any use of tar, welding or other “hot works” and a constantly available water supply, said Marco Civitarese, Calgary’s chief building official. Now their first application is in the permitting phase.

Edmonton’s approach will be similar, said Croome. “It’s going to be a huge challenge. We’re going to spend a lot of time monitoring the six-storey sites.”

Architect David Hamilton with GMH Architects said units in six-storey wood frame buildings will be more affordable and environmentally sustainable. They cut costs by allowing more units without forcing builders to invest in concrete and steel.

Plus they’re safe, he said. “There are as many lethal fires in concrete buildings that have no sprinklers as wood buildings that have no sprinklers.”

His company has two buildings locally in the design phase.

But architect Jim Der doesn’t think demand will be high. The building code changes were pushed by the B.C. forestry industry but home buyers still want concrete if they can afford it.

“To be honest, the majority of my clients are still preferring concrete. ... It’s the optics of safety,” he said.

Der & Associates Architecture has seven multi-family residential projects in development at the moment. Six out of the seven are concrete, including a four-storey apartment infill in the west end. The last one is a four-storey wood frame structure.

It costs about $20 a square foot more to build in concrete than wood, give or take several dollars, Der said.

“It’s not as huge a difference as people think it is.”

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