Concrete block manufacturers at it again, attacking wood construction

fox news on fire
Video screen capture Fire in Edgewater

The embers were barely cool before the concrete blockheads in Canada were running full page ads in all the newspapers decrying the dangers of wood construction. They go on in their ad:

It was built to code. It had working sprinklers. But as local firefighters pointed out, once the lightweight wood assembly caught fire, sprinklers were simply no match for the 5-alarm blaze that tore through this luxury apartment complex recently in Edgewater, New Jersey....So much loss could have been prevented through more durable, fire-proof construction – starting with concrete block. Edgewater’s fire chief said, “If it was made out of concrete and…block, we wouldn’t have this sort of problem.”

concrete block adLloyd Alter photo of ad/CC BY 2.0
They are running these scary ads because the Province of Ontario, like many other jurisdictions, has changed its building code to permit wood frame construction up to six stories high. They do claim that the Edgewater building was "built to code", but which code? The blockheads don't mention that the fire was started by workers with a blowtorch who didn't call 911 but decided that they could put it out themselves, delaying response by at least 15 minutes. The fire chief said "It was mostly a big contributor because it was a delay in the response of the fire department." Or that the New Jersey code didn't require sprinklers in every space, or that the building was huge; It doesn't note that the new Ontario code demands full enhanced sprinklers even on balconies, noncombustible exterior cladding, and other measures that make Ontario construction different from New Jersey.

Nor do they mention why wood construction is such a good thing: that we have vast swathes of forest land being destroyed by the pine beetle and we should be using this wood before it rots. That wood sequesters carbon dioxide for as long as it's in the building, whereas the manufacture of cement is responsible for 5% of the CO2 produced.

St. ClairLloyd Alter/ St. Clair Avenue, Toronto/CC BY 2.0

But the real opportunity for wood frame construction is that fact that it is less expensive to build, particularly at lower mid-rise heights. Concrete construction is simply not very efficient for low rise; the cranes and the formwork are expensive and you amortize that over a lot of floors. The City of Toronto is full of main streets like this one, St. Clair Avenue, with great transit but really low density buildings. The economics of knocking these down and building six stories in concrete just don't work. However with wood construction's easier setup and lower costs, it can. So on streets like this, wood construction permits more affordable housing for people who can no longer afford single family detached houses in the area. Or as City Planner Jennifer Keesmaat noted,

There is now a shift to create sensitive and compatible housing in low-rise neighbourhoods situated within corridors that are well served by transit, schools, shopping and amenities. Mid-rise, six-storey wood structures present the opportunity to build our avenues in a way that is compatible with low-density residential neighbourhoods and allow for an affordable choice in the housing market. This is an essential initiative for our city.

New Jersey's Edgewater project was huge, 408 units. A thousand people were displaced, but not a single one was injured because their sprinkler system did at least that much right. But it isn't fair to compare what happened there to what is being built in Ontario; it is a different code and probably a different scale. While it is not comparing apples to oranges, it is perhaps like comparing Mackintosh to Delicious- they are different.

The fact is, there are many reasons why we need wood construction; we have to learn from Edgewater, not give up on wood.

Tags: New Jersey | Ontario | Wood Construction

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