Building taller buildings: in wood, not reinforced concrete

by Yule Heibel on May 13, 2008

An article in today’s local media reports that British Columbia’s Premier Gordon Campbell is proposing changes to the province’s building code to allow wood-frame construction for buildings taller than 4 floors.

Going higher … using wood
Canwest News Service
Published: Tuesday, May 13, 2008

A plan by the province to raise the minimum height for wood-framed apartment buildings to encourage more use of the province’s timber is receiving strong support from builders.

Premier Gordon Campbell told mayors attending a Whistler convention he wants to support the province’s forest industry by allowing the construction of wood-framed condominiums above the current four-storey limit.

Housing Minister Rich Coleman told the Canadian Home Builders’ Association he wants to see wood-framed building up to six storeys high. Coleman said the necessary building code changes could be accomplished through regulatory change and could be in place by September.

B.C. is already pushing the limit under the National Building Code by going as high a four-storeys in wood, said architect Richard Kadulski, but going higher, is doable, he said. [Article here.]

Sean Holman of Public Eye Online asks, “So where did the Campbell administration get the inspiration for this plan?” And answers as follows:

Well, back in February, International Forest Products Ltd. vice president Ric Slaco attended a Campbell administration climate action meeting. And, at the meeting, Mr. Slaco delivered a PowerPoint presentation [*] urging the government to promote British Columbia wood products by making “BC’s Building Code and procurement policies wood-centric” and expanding the province’s wood first policy to private buildings. This, as part of an effort to increase wood product use in construction for both environmentally and economic reasons. Fancy that! [Article here.] [* note: the presentation links to a 30-page PDF, worth clicking through on.]

Hotly debated already are safety issues (fire, seismic issues) and feasibility of building “that high” using wood. But for those willing to brave a bit of German, here’s a link (via to a company in Berlin (E3 and Kaden + Klingbeil) that’s building the first 7-story building in wood in that city. It’s causing a stir there, too, because people just assume that stone is what endures, concrete is a decent second place, and wood just doesn’t rate — it rots. But if you watch the video, you’ll be convinced that it’s entirely possible. I have to admit that their construction techniques are spectacular, almost over-engineered, and I have no idea whether BC’s builders will be held to quite that sort of standard. If the buildings are to last, however, maybe BC builders and architects should check out the Kaden +Klingbeil video and pick up a few tricks.

Note that current building codes in Berlin allow for wood construction up to 5 stories, so this project (E3) is breaking that barrier.  Note also that it has to meet very stringent fire code regulations: if you watch the video, you’ll see that basically all the wood (except for some ceiling panels) is covered up with thick slabs of fire-blocking material, which is why the building doesn’t look like it’s made of wood.  The architect also talks about how energy efficient the building is, as well as the building method.  There’s a lot of carbon off-setting in this construction material (which is what the BC PDF emphasizes, too).  In addition, the architect mentions that this building took only one third of the time to build as opposed to concrete construction.  In other words, you can get people into housing faster using wood.

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