Public Eye – March 24

Taller Timber-Frames Still Questioned in Europe

  • Mar. 23, 2011 5:00 p.m.

Lesley du Toit

Taller Timber-Frames Still Questioned in Europe

”Did you know that Wood Midrise Buildings have been used extensively in Europe as early as 1995?”

That’s one of the questions posed on the Website for Wood WORKS! — a wood manufacturing industry initiative that has been promoting the construction of taller timber-frame buildings in British Columbia.

But concerns have been raised about a key fire safety test that, according to Wood WORKS!, “enabled changes” to allow for seven-storey timber-frames in England and Wales.

That 1999 test was conducted by the United Kingdom’s Building Research Establishment — an “independent and impartial” but building-industry-funded research organization — as part of a project meant to “encourage confidence” in mid-rise, wood-frame buildings.

Setting alight a six-storey structure, the establishment reported a fire brigade put out the blaze after 64 minutes.

But an article published 11 years later in the July 2010 edition of the Royal Institute of British Architects Journal drew attention to the fact that “some hours later the fire reignited in a cavity in the structure on the third floor and spread with ‘abnormal rapid fire development — through cavities on floors three through to six.’”

“If it had been a real building,” continued the article’s author, architect and fire safety expert Sam Webb, “people would have moved back in, played with their kids, read books, watched TV and gone to bed.”

Wood WORKS! was unaware of those concerns, which were raised only after it had cited the test.

A staffer also stated the Building Research Establishment’s work was only being referenced as an example of another organization that had looked at six-storey wood-frame construction, adding British Columbia has more stringent fire safety regulations for such buildings.

The province increased the maximum height of wood-frames from four to six storeys two years ago over the objections of fire fighters and despite concerns by American building officials.

Bureaucrat feted before being replaced

The Times Colonist’s editorial page politely described it as a “long overdue management overhaul.” But not everyone is pleased to see the back of Lesley du Toit, whose controversial five-year reign as the bureaucratic head of the ministry of children and family development came to an abrupt end earlier this month.

On March 4 — just ten days before it was revealed du Toit had been dismissed by the new Clark administration — the British Columbia Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres feted her during an event at a traditional aboriginal big house near the Royal British Columbia Museum.

In an interview with Monday, the association’s executive director Paul Lacerte explained the intent of the honouring feast was to “stand up for individuals in the ministry of children and families that we have felt have done a lot to advance the aboriginal agenda” — adding that three other bureaucrats were also invited to the ceremony.

“We observed some protocols in there and had a big feast and then blanketed them with traditional Cowichan woven blankets and gifted those blankets to them,” he explained.

Lacerte said it wasn’t “clear” at the time the ceremony took place that du Toit was on her way out. Although media reports anticipated her departure — in part, because of the deputy’s troubled relationship with the province’s independent child protection watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

Lacerte acknowledged, “I don’t think that dynamic helped any of us. But notwithstanding that there was a clash of two matriarchs, we’ll certainly miss Lesley.” The reason: “It’s been rare that we’ve had such a strong advocate for aboriginal issues at the deputy minister level.”

Lacerte said aboriginal friendship centres across the province have held similar events to “try to create a different tone” between the ministry of children and family and indigenous peoples, recognizing bureaucrats who have “showed a willingness to think and act differently as it relates to our people.” M


Sean Holman is editor of the online provincial political news journal Public Eye ( He can be reached at

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