The Canadian Wood Council

Ensuring Recognition and Acceptance of a Viable, Renewable Construction Choice

Wood WORKS! – it’s a simple catchphrase that sums up an increasing level of momentum and acknowledgment that wood products and systems are in fact a very viable, cost-effective and exciting option for the design and building industry in Canada and throughout the world. Wood is also a responsible choice as a renewable building material which can address climate-change and urbanization issues of the 21st century.

Spearheading the advancement of wood use in Canada is the Canadian Wood Council (CWC), the official national association representing manufacturers of Canadian wood products that are used in all types of construction. The primary function of the Council is to expand market access and increase the demand for Canadian wood products through work in codes, standards, regulations and education. The CWC is a national association made up of many associations in the wood products industry with typical members being the likes of lumber associations such as the Ontario Lumber Manufacturers Agency, the Québec Forest Industry Council and British Columbia’s Council of Forest Industries.

Wood products and systems sold in North America offer a plethora of advantages in terms of material, construction and costs – both economic and environmental, in comparison to other mainstream structural and architectural materials. Building with wood, either custom or prefabricated, is fast and efficient, and can be undertaken year-round in any climate. Wood provides cost benefits in terms of building performance and enhanced occupant health, as natural materials such as wood demonstrate positive impacts on employee productivity and well-being. Wood fits an array of project types and applications, from small civic structures to mid-rise residential to larger and taller commercial buildings. It is suitable for both a finish material, bringing warmth and natural beauty to interior and exterior applications, but also as a strong structural material, making distinctive and iconic structures possible. Advanced technology and modern building codes are expanding opportunities for wood products and systems, demonstrating that wood use is integral to innovative architecture, design and engineering.

The CWC supports innovation and provides leadership on the use of wood products and systems in design and construction. CWC also provides expert technical and knowledge-transfer services relating to all aspects of the construction process from start to finish. Ongoing communication is a top priority for the CWC in order to be at the forefront of industry requirements and expectations within Canada and beyond – with 40 per cent of wood products exported to global markets. Partners of the CWC include science providers such as FPInnovations and the National Research Council, the wood products industry via its members as well as the design and construction professionals.

The Canadian Business Journal recently had an opportunity to speak with CWC President Michael Giroux and Etienne Lalonde, VP, Market Development and Wood WORKS! National Director, who are both based in Ottawa. A priority for the CWC is to provide evidence that wood products do in fact meet the core objectives of the building code, which include health and safety.

“We have a model national building code and we have, with one exception for the City of Vancouver, related provincial building codes,” Giroux explains. “The provinces are responsible for regulating construction, so their codes are the actual lawful tools and within these, CWC needs to ensure that wood products and building systems are always fairly represented. Innovative new technologies and building systems have enabled longer wood spans, taller walls and higher buildings, and continue to expand the possibilities for wood use in construction. It’s a constant process to make sure that wood is fairly represented and that an equal playing field, when compared to other construction choices, exists.”

When considered over its entire life cycle from the point of harvesting raw materials through manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance and disposal or recycling, primarily wood-based structures built to the same specifications as similar structures made from competing materials will often perform to a higher standard in terms of operational energy and carbon footprint – both important climate change mitigation objectives. Light-frame wood and massive timber construction also have, once built, a proven safety and performance record for fire protection. It’s important to note that building codes require all building systems to perform to the same level of safety, regardless of the material used in construction. In fact, wood meets and in some cases exceeds code requirements. In non-residential and residential mid-rise applications, the installation of sprinkler systems and fire-resistance-rated wall, floor and ceiling assemblies are often implemented to expand the allowable size of wood-frame structures. A high strength-to-weight ratio, high energy-absorption capacity and ductile behaviour also make wood a building material of choice for excellent seismic performance.

One of the main initiatives at the forefront of the CWC is what’s known as its Wood WORKS! program, which has a vital role of expanding wood’s use in design and construction. The CWC and its members champion the Wood WORKS! program with staff and consultants situated in five regions across the country. The aim of the program is to provide inspiration, education, training and technical expertise to building and design professionals and local governments. Wood WORKS! has worked with design teams, owners and contractors, delivering wood product and system knowledge, cost-effective solutions and benefits to help realize warm, beautiful and human-centered environments that people love.

“It’s about market expansion, first and foremost and exploring new opportunities for wood products and systems,” Lalonde says. “In the past wood was mostly used for residential construction. The Wood WORKS! program is really about increasing the use of wood in the multi-family and commercial construction markets.”

Wood is the only major building material that grows naturally and is renewable, which serves as important points in the wood industry’s promotion of its products in construction. Heightened pressures to reduce environmental impacts mean that Canadian communities are increasingly being called upon to balance functionality and cost objectives with reduced environmental impact. Wood is a cost-effective material and a renewable resource that can help achieve that desired equilibrium. Architects, engineers and governments are pushing harder all the time for a future that is lower carbon and lower energy, which further enhances the appeal of utilizing wood as a core product.

The CWC staunchly promotes innovative wood products and systems and works diligently with industry, science providers and governments. This relationship not only allows for the deployment of current products but it also allows for the introduction of new engineered wood products that can be used in construction and building systems. Giroux says it’s helping position wood-based innovation to serve architects, engineers and builders in their efforts to meet current and future societal needs.

In early 2015, Ontario introduced significant alterations to its provincial building code to allow light-wood-frame and massive timber buildings to increase from the then limit of four storeys to up to six storeys. This welcomed move followed in the footsteps of British Columbia, which was the first province to take the initiative forward in 2009, Quebec who did so in 2013, the City of Calgary in 2014 and the Province of Alberta in May 2015. This Ontario initiative also mirrored much of the work that was well underway for the 2015 update of the model National Building Code of Canada which, once approved by the Canadian Commission on Buildings and Fire Codes late this year, will be published in 2016.

“Up to six-storey wood mid-rise buildings is great news for communities with residential intensification objectives and for builders and developers, who previously could not obtain the return on investment needed to construct these buildings at lower heights. In the end, this also works out to increased affordability for home buyers and an exciting new dimension in our built environment,” stated Giroux.

Objectives of the Council were substantially modified in 1965 when there was a conscientious move to emphasize building codes and standards development rather than promotion, with an increased focus on education and communication. It was also during that time when the official name of the CWC was changed from The Canadian Wood Development Council, which had been founded six years earlier as a federation of 18 forest products associations from coast to coast.

“Our mission today is not a whole lot different than it was 50 years ago,” Giroux says. “It’s essentially to ensure fair recognition of wood products and building systems in Codes and Standards and to educate construction sector stakeholders about the numerous opportunities for the use of wood products and systems. Education in fact, is a key focus of the CWC’s Wood WORKS! program.”

“Wood WORKS! efforts are targeted at a broad audience,” Lalonde says. “You have the code regulators and policy makers, the builders, the architects and engineers, fire officials and insurance companies. It’s a whole slew of folks and groups that need to engage and educate. Many are just not familiar with the use of wood outside of residential construction.

“There is the reality that most builders and developers won’t be interested in our building solutions if they aren’t cost-competitive,” Giroux candidly remarks. “Yes, cost is a key driver but with climate mitigation and adaptation becoming more important, attention to operational energy and carbon footprint reduction as well as building resilience is becoming increasingly important – in particular for government public works projects.

It often takes a painstakingly laborious amount of time for the construction sector to adopt innovative new products and construction processes. Builders are acclimated to expediting tasks in certain ways, which along with cost, is one of the main reasons why the residential construction industry has largely continued to use wood products. In the reverse, these are the hurdles that the wood industry needs to overcome to be more successful in the non-residential and tall building markets.” Giroux says.

“It’s all about changing perceptions and educating people,” Lalonde continues. “There is resistance to change and it’s not just from competing materials but also from important stakeholders like firefighters. We need to make sure all of the issues groups like that bring up are dealt with fairly.”

Giroux and the CWC team lament the fact the building codes remain overly prescriptive. In the future they can envision a time when the association in cooperation with other industries and construction sector stakeholders will work with the National Research Council’s Code Centre to successfully migrate building codes to being performance based.

“In 10 to 15 years from now I see our industry increasingly providing wood products and building systems to help architects meet the social challenges of the time including climate change mitigation and adaptation.” Giroux says. “We will continue to position the Canadian wood products industry to be a solution provider in that future.”

The CWC is in the process of implementing a detailed road map in order to ensure future architects, engineers, builders and developers are equipped with the information they need in order to build wood structures. There are about 30 engineering schools at universities throughout Canada but only one or two of them actually teach wood technology in a program of its own, and a few more incorporate wood into their civil engineering courses.

“We want to see more colleges and universities teaching about wood products both from an engineering and an architectural point of view,” Lalonde says.

“We’re entering a remarkable opportunity phase where there is heightened interest and resulting market demand for existing and innovative new wood products in non-traditional residential and non-residential markets. Whether our products are lumber, engineered wood, wood fiber in concrete or any other hybrid solution, I think that we will soon see a broader curriculum inclusive of wood technology offered in both college and university programs” Lalonde adds.

Giroux, Lalonde and others at the CWC invest considerable time and resources into working with various jurisdictions across the country to ensure that best practices are adopted and enforced at all times for building construction. It’s cost effective, safe, and secure. Wood really does work!