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New Westminster wants to opt in to "tall wood" building construction

Provincial rollout of program is anticipated in late 2022
New Westminster is interested in opting into a provincial initiative that allows wood buildings of up to 12 storeys to be construction. The BC Building Code currently only permits six-storey wood-frame construction, but changes are expected in 2022. File/The Record

New Westminster wants to join some of its neighbours and allow tall wood buildings to be built in the city.

The city will inform the provincial government that it wants to be included in its tall wood initiative. Updates to the BC Building Code that took effect in December 2019 allow local governments to opt in to an initiative that permits construction of “encapsulated mass timber construction” (EMTC) in buildings of up to 12 storeys in height.

Staff anticipate the province will be providing an opt-in opportunity to the tall wood initiative in 2021, ahead of the province rollout for the program that’s expected in December 2022. The city didn’t participate in the first two opt-in opportunities in 2019 and 2020.

“Following the building code revisions, the city began receiving inquiries about tall wood EMTC construction, signalling there is interest by developers to use it for projects in New Westminster,” said a staff report to council.

Currently, the BC Building Code allows wood buildings to be built up to a maximum of six storeys. The staff report states 20 B.C. communities have already opted in to the tall wood initiative, including Coquitlam, Delta, Port Moody, Richmond and Surrey.

According to staff, mass timber construction has many benefits from sustainability and economic perspectives, such as making it easier for buildings to achieve high levels of energy efficiency. Staff say wood construction can also have a shorter construction period, reduced construction noise, less site waste and can potentially be less expensive.

Emilie Adin, the city’s director of development services, said opting in to the program would result in a “significant savings in time and therefore a savings in cost” for the city, as staff wouldn’t have review alternative solutions to tall wood construction.

“That is a lot more time intensive to review alternatives, rather than to opt in and have a set of regulations that we could follow rather than dealing with each situation,” she said. “We would potentially still get those applications; it would just be there would be a different avenue for reviewing those than what we are proposing to council with this report.”

Open for business

Opting in to the initiative would send a positive message to the development community, Adin said.

“It’s a signal to the development community that we are open for business, and that there is a bit of an easier path for us and for them to get to the finish line with this new type of construction,” she said. “It’s really more of a signal than anything else.”

The Jan. 18 report to council also stated additional training and resources would be required for New Westminster Fire and Rescue Services as part of this initiative, including review of applications and training for fire suppression on these types of buildings.

“EMTC technology is recognized for reducing excessive material storage on construction sites, which improve general site safety. However, constructing with a new combustible product at increased heights would present new firefighting uncertainties,” said the report. “Training would need to be developed and provided to the NWFRS suppression division to address concerns and operational strategies for this type of construction.”

The fire department estimates it will need $40,000 per year for staffing related to this initiative. The report included a recommendation directing staff to add the required $40,000 to the fire department’s 2021 to 2025 operating budget as an ongoing expense.

Coun. Mary Trentadue said she isn’t opposed to training but assumed that would be part of the fire department’s existing training budget.

Development keeping fire department busy

Fire Chief Tim Armstrong said the department’s prevention division is “really taxed right now” trying to keep up with all the construction that’s taking place in the city. The fire department reviews fire safety plans and does inspections of new developments.

“We are eventually going to have to increase our prevention division because of the rate of development in the city,” he said. “We are having a really hard time keeping up.”

Given the need to design, get approvals and build any new tall wood building, Adin said it would be two to three years down the road before the first building of this type is completed in New West.

“There is time to build this into the budget and there’s time to look at it in future budget years,” she said.

Coun. Patrick Johnstone supported the opportunity of moving forward with the tall wood construction initiative, saying it fills a housing “gap” that’s needed in the city. Given the timelines, he suggested council consider the fire department’s budget request once the city has a better understanding of the cost implications of the initiative.

Council referred the recommendation regarding funding for the fire department back to staff for a further report.