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May 28, 2008

Alberta Building Code

Fire-safety concerns drive changes to Alberta building code regulations

Building code regulations in Alberta are being beefed-up as a result of a major fire that destroyed dozens of homes in south Edmonton last summer.

The devastating residential fire occurred in Edmonton and destroyed a condo complex under construction, 18 nearby duplexes and damaged a number of other homes.

Firefighters blamed poor construction materials and lax building codes for the fire and said damage could have been minimized if building codes required a greater distance between houses and required certain types of siding to be used.

Arson was later determined to be the cause of the blaze.

In response to the fire, the Alberta government formed a working group to review data from recent fires in a number of Alberta communities.

It brought forward a report and made several recommendations for changes to the provincial building code.

The government announced last week that it was accepting most of the recommendations received from the High-Intensity Residential Fires Working Group, by taking action to reduce the effects of high-intensity residential fires.

The group recommended that the new code requires fire-resistant gypsum wallboard be used under vinyl siding instead of the faster-burning oriented strandboard.

“As an industry these changes that have been mandated are based on recent testing at the National Research Council, who did testing with the City of Calgary,” said Rick Gratton, chairman of the technical committee of the Canadian Homebuilders’ Association in Calgary.

“Under the new building code, the task group recommends that homes built 1.2 metres from the property line will not be required to use fire-resistant gypsum wallboard under vinyl siding or non-combustible sheeting, such as concrete board, masonry or brick.”

Gratton emphasized that homes built at least 1.2 metres from the property line will not be required to use non-combustible materials, although initial media reports stated the opposite.

The misinformation meant the majority of homes built in Calgary would be affected by the new code.

“There was a huge misinterpretation of the new code, which I am trying to clarify. In fact, very few or only about 20 per cent of homes are affected,” Gratton said.

The new code also aims to make new homes with attached garages safer by requiring fire detectors and gypsum wallboard in the garage.

“An attached garage must be lined with gypsum and heat sensors in the garage must be interconnected to smoke alarms in the home,” he said. “Basically, the incremental costs on this are very little and would total about $3,500.”

The group recommended that new multi-family buildings put in additional sprinklers in balconies, attics and crawl spaces in addition to those already required.

“The report has been received and we are doing a little leg work to see what the implications are. We welcome the report and are pleased to hear the government is following the recommendations,” said Vince Laberge, Alberta president of the Canadian Homebuilders Association.

“The MacEwan fire happened at the worst possible time, when there was little protection on the homes and there were 80 mph (128 kph) winds. It is pure speculation to say whether or not these changes would have prevented the fire.”

Under the new code contractors will be required to protect adjacent buildings during high-risk periods of construction, such as when the building frame is exposed. There will also be a new requirement for improved site security.

The government accepted 18 of 22 recommendations from the study group comprised of emergency workers, fire departments and members of the Safety Codes Council.

“Right now what will happen next is the recommendations will go before the fire and safety code council to make sure they are technically sound. A final revue for wording of the code will also be undertaken right away,” said Jody Korchinski, spokesperson with Alberta Municipal Affairs.

“The building code should be changed and put into legislation by early 2009.”

The working group included representatives from emergency services across Alberta, including municipal emergency services, the Edmonton and Calgary fire departments, the Safety Codes Council, municipal safety codes officers and Edmonton’s fire chief.

The working group’s full report is available on the Municipal Affairs website at www.municipalaffairs.alberta.ca.

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