Fire safety has become a hot button item for governments in Alberta and Ontario this year, as both provinces move to strengthen their fire codes. But not everyone is happy with the proposed regulations, as home builders fear they will add to the cost of housing while not actually improving the safety of new homes.
In Alberta, a huge fire destroyed 18 homes and damaged 76 more last year. The development was only a couple of years old, but the fire started in a condominium building that was still under construction and spread to occupied homes. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
The government formed a task force to look into the fire, and recently announced it would adopt 18 recommendations of the task force. The new regulations require fire-resistant gypsum board under the vinyl siding in homes built less than 1.2 metres from the property line. There will also be additional restrictions on window openings for walls that are built closely together.
In multi-family homes, which already require sprinkler systems in Alberta, additional sprinklers will be mandated for balconies, attics and crawl spaces that were previously exempt from the regulations. New homes with attached garages will require gypsum wallboard and fire detectors in the garages.
The Alberta government says many of the worst high-intensity residential fires start with construction site fires, caused by arson or worker carelessness. New regulations will require contractors to protect adjacent buildings during "high-risk periods of construction, such as when the building frame is exposed. There will also be a requirement for site security," says the government.
Alberta Municipal Affairs Minister Ray Danyluk says the regulations will add between $5,000 and $10,000 to the cost of some new homes, but the Alberta chapter of the Canadian Home Builders' Association says the real cost has yet to be determined.
"Alberta members work with building codes every day and know that industry needs to be involved when code changes are being considered to ensure that they are practical," says the association in a news release. "Although it's too early to determine how much, the proposed changes are expected to increase costs to new home buyers. It's important to find out whether they will actually improve the safety of new homes without causing other problems."
In Ontario, a consultation paper proposes that sprinklers become mandatory in new multifamily residential buildings higher than three storeys. Proponents say the move is long overdue and has been in place in more than 200 other Canadian and U.S. municipalities for many years. While the Ontario proposal would not require low-rise and single-family dwellings to have sprinklers, there's also been some action on that front. A private-members bill that would require sprinklers in all homes, which has been proposed for several years ( Expert Home Inspector Advice Professional House Inspection ), received Second Reading in the Ontario Legislature recently.
"Each year, on average we see over 100 Ontarians die and hundreds injured from residential fires, many of which are preventable," says MPP Linda Jeffrey, author of the bill.
The Ontario Home Builders' Association (OHBA) opposes the proposals. It says that "fire-related tragedies are steadily declining in the province" because of advances in fire separation techniques and technologies.
"Legislating fire sprinklers in all new housing would benefit homes and residents least threatened by fire," says an OHBA position paper, since most fires occur in older homes that often don't have working fire alarms. It says the government should "consider tougher legislation, regulation and enforcement mechanisms to reduce and ultimately eliminate the number of homes still unprotected by smoke alarms," and "invest more in public education programs to make homes without smoke alarms as socially unacceptable as drinking and driving."
The OHBA also says it has "significant concerns about the availability of skilled, certified sprinkler installers in our industry. Mandating residential sprinklers within the next year is only going to compound the current problem of a shortage of skilled trades across Ontario. This could also lead to multiple delayed closings … ."
Mandating the sprinklers in high-rise buildings as a public policy "requires accurate data and additional analysis," says the association.
"OHBA believes that the best way to save lives is to require all smoke alarms be hard-wired into the home's electrical system," it says.
The consultation period for Ontario's proposals for high-rise buildings has now ended. The province has set Sept. 1, 2009 as a tentative implementation date for the new fire code.