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CAC OpEd on Massive Condo Project Fire in Edmonton’s Rutherford Neighbourhood

Op-Ed Submitted to Edmonton Journal
Michael McSweeney
President and CEO Cement Association of Canada
November 4 2013

Why do we allow cheap, unsafe buildings with short life spans to be constructed in our cities?

The recent massive fire at a four-storey wood frame condominium construction site in the Rutherford neighbourhood of Edmonton is yet another disastrous and costly example of how wood-frame buildings are inefficient, unsustainable, and compromise the health and safety of Canadians.

As this site was in the framing stage of construction, fire safety features had not yet been installed. Within an hour, the flames spread to three buildings in the complex.

At the fire’s peak, there were 21 fire trucks and 85 firefighters on the scene to contain the blaze. Approximately 200 neighbouring residents were temporarily evacuated from their homes and hundreds of people living near the blaze were without power for much of the day. One of the major concerns for firefighters was the fact that several propane tanks were on the site at the time of the fire, which exploded amidst the blaze.

The condos, which were to house approximately 265 suites, were not yet occupied and no injuries were reported. However, the building development is now totalled and damages are currently estimated at $20 million, with extensive damages to nearby homes estimated to be an additional $1 million. A fire in a wood-frame building, especially in one lacking sprinklers, can be deadly. Although no one was seriously injured this time around, our citizens may not be so lucky next time.

The Canadian Wood Council has stated that sprinklers are only required in a completed wood-frame building, and are thus not necessary while the building is under construction. However, the reality is that installing sprinklers during the construction phase would increase costs of the building, thereby eliminating the cost advantage for wood over other building materials such as concrete.

As the wood industry continues to extol the virtues of tall wood building construction, it is important for citizens in Edmonton, and across Canada, to question the risks and ramifications these projects pose for us and our communities. If the wood frame construction industry will not hold itself to a standard which ensures the health and safety of the people living in and around their developments, then it is time for better standards. Wood-frame buildings in the construction phase of development are far more prone to catching fire and damaging nearby properties than buildings made from traditional materials such as concrete. As such, fire safety precautions should be implemented at the beginning of the construction phase.

More critically, wood is, fundamentally, a combustible material. Wood framing becomes very dry over the years and is at a much greater risk of catching fire than other building materials. Often, fires spread so fast that they cannot be put out by fire extinguishers, eventually causing tremendous property damage. Because of this, owners of wood-frame buildings will undoubtedly face higher insurance premiums, particularly if their local fire department reports that it does not have the equipment to fight such a fire. Canadians don’t want to risk seeing what is for most of us our biggest investment ? our home ? become a disposable one.

Wood construction projects need to be treated with extra precaution, especially during the construction phase. Applicable fire codes and building regulations must recognise this fact if similar disasters are to be prevented in the future.

It is crucial that Canadians remain critical of current building and fire codes. Those responsible for regulating the construction of wood-frame buildings have grossly miscalculated both the likelihood and far-reaching impact of fires in instances such as these.

 

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