Recently, Vancouver architect, Michael Green, issued a report entitled Tall Wood, arguing that skyscrapers and other tall buildings should use more wood as a primary construction material. His argument is that wood is up to the task, is less polluting, and is more environmentally sustainable than the materials currently used. Green’s (2012) buildings would employ “massive timber” elements such as cross laminated timber, laminated strand lumber, and laminated veneer lumber. Green is not suggesting that these tall building be of wood only. Rather, he is arguing that mass timber be integrated with other commonly-used structural materials such as concrete and steel.
While wood and wood-mix skyscrapers capture the imagination, extending the height of buildings with the more typical lighter-frame construction is perhaps a more practical concern. Currently, light frame construction tends to be limited to buildings of four storeys and less in North America. In some jurisdictions, this limit is mandated by building codes: in others, it is simply practice. Yet, the ability to construct acceptably safe timber structures with appropriate sprinkler and other technologies led Switzerland to change its fire codes in 2005 and allow the use of structural timber in medium-rise residential buildings of up to six storeys (Frangi and Fontana, 2010). Depending upon the application, mid-sized wood frame buildings can be a less expensive and more flexible alternative to other structures.
Despite the prevalence of wood frame structures throughout North America and parts of Europe, major concerns remain over the fire safety of such structures. This paper discusses some of the issues relating to wood structures and flammability.
A series of compartment fire experiments has been undertaken to evaluate the impact of combustible cross laminated timber linings on the compartment fire behaviour. Compartment heat release rates and temperatures are reported for three configuration of exposed timber surfaces. Auto-extinction of the compartment was observed in one case but this was not observed when the experiment was repeated under identical condition. This highlights the strong interaction between the exposed combustible material and the resulting fire dynamics. For large areas of exposed timber linings heat transfer within the compartment dominates and prevents auto-extinction. A framework is presented based on the relative durations of the thermal penetration time of a timber layer and compartment fire duration to account for the observed differences in fire dynamics. This analysis shows that fall-off of the charred timber layers is a key contributor to whether auto-extinction can be achieved.
FPInnovations initiated this project to demonstrate the ability of wood exit stairs in mid-rise buildings to perform adequately in a fire when NBCC requirements are followed, with the intent of changing perceptions of the fire safety of wood construction. The objective of this research is to investigate further the fire safety afforded by exit stair shafts of combustible construction, with the ultimate objective of better consistency between the provincial and national building codes with respect to fire requirements for exit stair shafts in mid-rise wood-frame construction.