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Controversy rises from embers of housing development

A large fire that destroyed a housing development under construction in Richmond, B.C. has prompted a public relations battle among associations representing different construction materials.


A large fire that destroyed a housing development under construction in Richmond, B.C. has prompted a public relations battle among associations representing different construction materials.

The Remy housing development at Cambie and Stolberg Roads in Richmond went up in flames on the night of May 3, creating a blaze that lit up the sky for five hours and required 40 firefighters five hours to put it out. No-one was hurt, but the building collapsed in on itself and all that was left was its charred concrete elevator core.

The housing development was controversial because it is the first to be built under new rules introduced in 2009 into the B.C. Building Code that allow all wood-frame construction for mid-rise buildings.

Masonry and cement industry associations are saying that the fire shows they are justified in their concerns about the safety of wood-frame mid-rise buildings, and they are warning against the wisdom of other jurisdictions following B.C.’s lead in allowing them. Proposed changes to the Ontario Building Code and the National Building Code are already in the works that would also allow wood frame buildings over four storeys high.

In a press release, Bill McEwen, executive director of the Masonry Institute of B.C. said: “Concrete block walls could have protected these buildings, both during construction and more importantly during occupancy… If these buildings had been constructed with concrete block, we would not be here today.” 

From Toronto, MasonryWorx, another industry association, pointed out that fire fighters have expressed concern about fighting fires from within  6-storey all-wood structures as they incorporate engineered wood products “that provide little fire resistance when exposed to high temperatures.”

The Cement Association of Canada said the fire “highlighted the critical need for more study of the fire safety implications of residential mid-rise wood building construction.” In its statement, the CAC said it was “urging civil servants and politicians to not favour one building material over another due to economic circumstances, but to put safety first.” The CAC noted, “While the building was not yet complete, this incident serves to underline how fragile and susceptible to fire these structures are. Since sprinklers, one of the key safety features, are mechanical systems that can fail, the CAC has long been advocating for further evaluation of the fire safety and structural risks associated with taller wood frame buildings before changes are made to the National Building Code and provincial Building Codes, and believes this type of review would be of value to British Columbia as well.”

From the wood products industry side, the Canadian Wood Council pointed out that the risk of fire is always higher when a building is under construction, and that this project “had not yet reached the point in time when the fire prevention and protection elements are all in place …”

The CWC said the fire was unfortunate because the Remy development was to have provided some affordable units.

Michael Giroux, president of the CWC, also said that the fire, “though devastating, should not take away from this innovative B.C. initiative, which has already set the stage for a pan-Canadian approach to mid-rise wood construction.”