On Sept. 23, 2014, the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing announced that the province will allow the construction of much higher wood-framed buildings. Through changes to the Ontario Building Code, wood-framed buildings will soon be allowed to be built up to six storeys high, raising the limit from the existing four-storey limit.

According to the ministry’s press release, this will introduce 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. In particular, they were concerned with the safety of mid-rise wood-framed buildings. At the time, they wrote:

“The massive fires that have recently destroyed several multi-storey wood buildings under construction in the last two years include Kingston, Ontario where the crane operator had to be heli-rescued; Richmond, British Columbia; and Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta, demonstrate how dangerous and unsafe wood-frame buildings under construction are. The tragic loss of senior citizens [in Québec] in January 2014 demonstrates how dangerous these buildings can be in operation and how many lives can be put at risk as a result. There are significant safety issues, public and private liability and other consequences, especially with moving too quickly on potential Code changes.”

Unfortunately, we do not need to go as far as British Columbia to be reminded of the devastating effects fires can have on wooden constructions. Many of you may also recall the blaze which destroyed a recent condominium townhouse complex in South Ottawa on Sept. 7, 2014. More than four dozen city firefighters responded to a three-alarm fire that caused in excess of $4M in damages. Thankfully, no occupants were injured, but the owners and the condominium are now left picking up the pieces.

The province indicates that it has addressed these safety concerns by implementing new safety requirements to wood-framed buildings, including the requirement to include in them stairwells with non-combustible materials and roofs that are combustion-resistant. This is said to make Ontario's regulations the most rigorous in Canada. On this, Ted McMeekin, Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, stated:

“Building Code changes to mid-rise wood construction will give builders and the public even safer, more flexible building options. Our made-in-Ontario model for mid-rise wood provides the highest requirements for fire safety in Canada.”

The University of the Fraser Valley published a recent 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.

Queen's Park expects that this change will generate new demand for forestry products, which currently support more than 150,000 direct and indirect jobs in more than 260 communities across Ontario. 

I am not an engineer. As such, I would not comment on any of the above. I am left to wonder, however, 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 in prohibiting noise disturbance or any nuisance that affects owners’ quiet enjoyment of their units. But experience has shown that the enforcement of such rules can be costly to the condominium corporation and very frustrating to the owners. Many of us may remember last year’s very unfortunate case of the Ottawa autistic child, whose behavior and activities rendered cohabitation near impossible for the owner living below them. 

Noise transmission is inevitable in many cases. We have all had to accept, at one point or another, some level of noise coming from a neighbour. 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.

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, over 50 wood-framed buildings have been built since it changed its building code in 2009 and over 200 more are in the works.

These changes to the Ontario Building Code will come into force on Jan. 1, 2015.