The provision of fire safety in a building is a complex matter; far more complex than the relative combustibility of the main structural materials used in a building. To develop safe code provisions, prevention, suppression, movement of occupants, mobility of occupants, building use, and fuel control are but a few of the factors that must be considered in addition to the combustibility of the structural components.
Fire-loss experience shows that building contents play a large role in terms of fuel load and smoke generation potential in a fire. The passive fire protection provided by the fire-resistance ratings on the floor and wall assemblies in a building assures structural stability in a fire. However, the fire-resistance rating of the structural assemblies does not necessarily control the movement of smoke and heat, which can have a large impact on the level of safety and property damage resulting from fire.
The National Building Code of Canada (NBC) categorizes wood buildings as ‘combustible construction’. Despite being termed combustible, common construction techniques can give wood frame construction fire-resistance ratings up to two hours. When designed and built to code requirements, wood buildings provide the same level of life safety and property protection required for comparably sized buildings defined under the NBC as ‘noncombustible construction’.
Wood has been used for virtually all types of buildings, including; schools, warehouses, fire stations, apartment buildings, and research facilities. The NBC sets out guidelines for the use of wood in applications that extend well beyond the traditional residential and small building sector. The NBC allows wood construction of up to six storeys in height, and wood cladding for buildings designated to be of noncombustible construction.
When meeting the area and height limits for the various NBC building categories, wood frame construction can meet the life safety requirements by making use of wood-frame assemblies (usually protected by gypsum wallboard) that are tested for fire-resistance ratings. The allowable height and area restrictions can be extended by using fire walls to break a large building area into smaller separate building areas.
The recognized positive contribution to both life safety and property protection which comes from the use of automatic sprinkler systems can also be used to increase the permissible area of wood buildings. Sprinklers typically operate very early in a fire thereby quickly controlling the damaging effects. For this reason, the provision of automatic sprinkler protection within a building greatly improves the life safety and property protection prospects of all buildings including those constructed of noncombustible materials.
The NBC permits the use of ‘heavy timber construction’ in buildings where combustible construction is required to have a 45-minute fire-resistance rating. This form of heavy timber construction is also permitted to be used in large noncombustible buildings in certain occupancies. To be acceptable, the components must comply with minimum dimension and installation requirements. Heavy timber construction is afforded this recognition because of its performance record under actual fire exposure and its acceptance as a fire-safe method of construction. In sprinklered buildings permitted to be of combustible construction, no fire-resistance rating is required for the roof assembly or its supports when constructed from heavy timber. In these cases, a heavy timber roof assembly and its supports would not have to conform to the minimum member dimensions stipulated in the NBC.
Mass timber elements may also be used whenever combustible construction is permitted. In those instances, however, such mass timber elements need to be specifically designed to meet any required fire-resistance ratings.
Combustible means that a material fails to meet the acceptance criteria of CAN/ULC-S114, “Test for Determination of Non-Combustibility in Building Materials.”
Combustible construction means that type of construction that does not meet the requirements for noncombustible construction.
Heavy timber construction means that type of combustible construction in which a degree of fire safety is attained by placing limitations on the sizes of wood structural members and on thickness and composition of wood floors and roofs and by the avoidance of concealed spaces under floors and roofs.
Noncombustible construction means that type of construction in which a degree of fire safety is attained by the use of noncombustible materials for structural members and other building assemblies.
Noncombustible means that a material meets the acceptance criteria of CAN/ULC-S114, “Test for Determination of Non-Combustibility in Building Materials.”
For further information, refer to the following resources:
National Building Code of Canada
CAN/ULC-S114 Test for Determination of Non-Combustibility in Building Materials
Wood Design Manual 2017