Since January 1st, 2015, Ontario allows for the construction of much higher wood-framed buildings. Through changes to the Ontario Building Code, wood-framed buildings are now allowed to be built up to six-storey high, raising the limit from the prior four-storey limit.

According to a press release from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, this change to the building code will provide for safer, more flexible and more affordable design options for the construction of wood-framed buildings. These changes are “expected to give builders a safe option that can help make building a home more affordable and support more attractive, pedestrian-oriented buildings that enhance streetscapes while continuing to protect the safety of residents and firefighters.”

Last March, the Ontario Coalition for Fair Construction Practices wrote to all Ontario MPPs to oppose this proposed change to the Ontario Building Code, raising safety concerns and an increase risk of fire.  The province indicates that it has addressed these safety concerns by implementing new safety requirements to wood-framed buildings, including the requirement to include stairwells made with non-combustible materials and roofs that are combustion-resistant. This, the province says, makes Ontario’s regulations the most rigorous in Canada.

The University of the Fraser Valley published a study on the topic of fire safety in buildings with proper sprinklers. This study, Sprinkler Systems and Fire Outcomes in Multi-Level Residential Buildings, seemed to suggest that new six-storey wood-framed buildings would be safer than older, shorter wood-framed buildings, given that the amended building code (in British Columbia) requires them to be fully sprinklered to a higher standard than previously required, and to be constructed with a range of other built-in fire protection systems, such as non-combustible exterior cladding and the use of electromagnetic hold-open door devices that release in the event of a fire. The full report is available for review at cjr.ufv.ca and surrey.ca.

Some may be reassured to know that Ontario is not the first jurisdiction to increase the height of permitted wood-frame buildings. Most European Union countries and several North American jurisdictions allow six-storey wood-frame buildings. In British Columbia, there are a few hundred new (or expected) 6-storey wood-framed buildings.

We are left to wonder how these higher wooden structures will impact the cohabitation of neighbours. Wood structures are notorious for allowing more noise transfer and more smoke and odour migration. In a densely populated condominium community, will purchasers be made aware of the fact that these new buildings are wooden-framed and not concrete as may be thought at first glance?

Most condominiums’ governing documents provide some protection to owners by prohibiting noise disturbance or any nuisance from neighbouring units. But experience has shown that the enforcement of such rules can be costly to the condominium corporation and very frustrating to the owners.  Noise transmission is inevitable in many cases. What is the normal level of noise to be expected in a wooden structure? Would it be different than what is to be expected in a concrete structure? Perhaps a new chapter of condominium litigation is about to be written in Ontario. Only time will tell.