Are Current Building Codes Doing Enough to Protect Against Fire?

    Experience shows that while wood frame and drywall receive acceptable
    'fire resistance' ratings in industry testing, in real-life situations
    these materials burn. The tragic consequences of recent fires in Orillia,
    Ontario and Saguenay, Québec are all the more reason to re-think the
    status quo on codes and testing and look at mandating the use of non-
    combustible materials such as concrete block.

    TORONTO, April 7 /CNW/ - A building passes fire inspection - yet fire
strikes and almost within minutes reduces the structure to charred rubble.
People are dead. Others are left homeless. This was the case back in January
2009 when, within days of one another, two fires at separate retirement homes
- one in Orillia, Ontario and the other in Saguenay, Québec - decimated the
buildings and caused the deaths of several residents. In Saguenay, seniors in
bare feet and pajamas, forced out into -32 degree C temperatures (-36 degrees
C with the wind chill), watched as flames engulfed their home. In the words of
Saguenay Mayor Jean Tremblay: "The whole building burned. The walls fell in."
    Knowing what we know now about the fire safety of these two residences,
how many of us would have had our parents live in them? It's worth noting this
observation from a Globe and Mail reader in the paper's online Comment forum:
"These two tragic fires may have nothing in common except that it was seniors
who died. But it's worth a look at the quality of the homes where our parents
live and where we in our turn will live."
    Are our building codes stringent enough? Should we be mandating the use
of construction materials that are not merely fire resistant but are
    Industry-standard testing allows materials such as wood frame and gypsum
drywall to be rated fire-resistant (the Gypsum Association in the U.S. cites
fire-resistance ratings of up to four hours). After a certain amount of time,
however - two-hours is a typical testing threshold - these materials will
burn. Real-life experience shows they do, and typically much faster than in
laboratory conditions.
    Concrete block, however, is not merely fire-resistant; it's
non-combustible. When subjected to the 1,800 degree F temperatures that other
building materials are exposed to - and then put to the test of a fire hose
gushing at a pressure of 30 pounds per square inch (PSI) - the concrete block
remains intact. After exposure to fire for two hours, the drywall is
penetrated by the hose in just over 30 seconds. Applied to fiber-reinforced
gypsum panels, the hose blasts through in a mere 10 seconds. Here's a
real-life comparison: In recent cases of suspected arson on some Toronto-area
construction sites, fires all but flattened the wood-frame assemblies, in some
instances leaving only the supporting masonry walls standing.
    So why don't we enforce the use of non-combustible material such as
concrete masonry? Canada's transition in recent years to objective-based
building codes may be part of the problem. Previously, the codes were
prescriptive, in essence describing what had to be done. In Ontario's new
Building Code Act of 2006, the objective-based format adds why to the
equation, describing the desired outcome. The intent is to promote flexibility
in design and construction through the use of what the Code refers to as
'acceptable solutions' - alternatives that achieve the same desired results.
Unfortunately, these alternatives don't always achieve the same results where
fire testing is concerned.
    Ontario has further amended its Building Code with the addition of a
regulation requiring fire sprinklers in multiple-unit residential dwellings
over three storeys tall. The regulation, which came into effect in June 2008,
will apply to building-permit applications filed after April 1st, 2010.
    This is a good thing. Sprinklers will no doubt help improve the fire
safety of taller buildings and increase the chances that their residents will
get out alive. Sprinklers - or a lack thereof - were specifically cited as
having contributed to the Muskoka Heights blaze in Orillia.
    However, rather than simply take the reactionary approach of legislating
sprinklers, why not implement building-code improvements more proactively -
from the ground up? Why not legislate the use of materials that don't burn?
    Asked for his thoughts on the matter, contractor and TV personality Mike
Holmes says, "I believe it's possible to greatly improve the performance of
materials in construction in terms of fire resistance. Why not make a house
that's fire-resistant? That makes more sense to me than mandating fire
sprinklers in residential construction."
    This brings to mind the old adage, 'An ounce of prevention is worth a
pound of cure'. The problem with applying it in this context is that often,
once fire strikes, there is no cure. This only reinforces the need to focus on
prevention. While sprinklers are a start, perhaps we also need to look at our
fire-safety standards - then ask whether our current building codes are doing
enough to help save lives.

    Paul Hargest owns Kitchener-based Boehmer's/Hargest Block Ltd. and is the
President of the Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association (CCMPA). Paul
is also Vice President of MasonryWorx (the marketing and government-relations
body for the masonry industry); Chair, A165-04 Block Standard (CSA); Board
Member, Canadian Masonry Contractors Association; Board Member, Ontario
Masonry Contractors Association; and Executive Committee Board Member,
National Concrete Masonry Association.

For further information:

For further information: or to arrange an interview with Paul Hargest,
contact: Marina de Souza, Managing Director, CCMPA, Toll Free: 1-888-495-7497,
Phone: (416) 495-7497, Fax: (416) 495-8939,,

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Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association

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