Proponents of the bill say it’s a win-win win for Alberta.
The innocuous sounding Bill 203 titled “Safety Codes (Sustainable Structures) Amendment Act, 2014,” might sound dry but it could dramatically impact the province’s forestry industry and those who depend on it.
The legislation was tabled as a private members bill back in December 2014 by Whitecourt – Lac Ste. Anne MLA George VanderBurg.
Private members bills are legislation that can be brought forward by any MLA. However, they’re still subject to the same process and scrutiny has a bill introduced by the government.
“It’s really exciting, especially for MLA’s that are tied to the forestry industry,” said VanderBurg. “It’s permissive legislation that allows the construction of wooden structures up to 18 metres, or six storeys high.”
Previously, provincial building codes only allowed wooden framed structures to be built three storeys high. Bill 203 doubles that.
Paul Whittaker, president and CEO of the Alberta Forest Products Association (AFPA), said Bill 203 could increase demand for lumber in the province.
The AFPA is an industry group representing a consortium of companies that operate in Alberta’s forestry industry. They monitor the forestry industry and lobby on its behalf. They also helped consult on Bill 203.
“The typical low-rise condo development is about three storeys high because wood is about 12 to 20 per cent cheaper than other building materials,” said Whittaker. “This could lead to more densification for communities that have wanted to move that way. Typically it costs less to build up than buy more land. This new bill opens the door to that.”
Regarding fire safety, both VanderBurg and Whittaker said any new, taller wooden structures, would still have to meet provincial fire regulations.
“Fire codes in Alberta are changing this year,” said Whittaker. “We have more stringent requirements coming forward to keep us safer, including voids in walls and attics.”
In Whitecourt and Woodlands County, both West Fraser and Millar Western operate large lumber mills, which draw from a pool of local labour.
Janet Millar, Director of communications at Millar Western, said that Bill 203 is a very positive development for communities like Whitecourt, which rely on forestry to provide a source of sustainable employment.
She said Millar Western’s Whitecourt mill, at the confluence of the Athabasca and McLeod rivers, produces about 330 million board feet, or 778,713 cubic metres of cut lumber, per year.
A board foot is a unit of measurement used by the lumber industry. Its equals the volume of a length of cut board that measures one-foot-long by one-inch-high and one-inch-wide.
Legislation allowing six storey wood-framed structures to be built has been in place in B.C. for six years. Millar said that since 2009 there has been an average increase of about 200 new mid-rise developments per year, representing an increase in demand for lumber of a million board feet, or 2,350 cubic metres.
“We do a lot of things, pulp and paper, we sustainably manage forestry but lumber products equate to about half of our revenue,” said Millar.
The bill also received broad support from other MLA’s across party line.
Whittaker said he attended the legislature on Monday, March 16, to see the vote first-hand.
“It was unanimous and members from all parties spoke in favour of it,” he said. “People who don’t pay attention to legislation may not realize this but private members bills typically aren’t passed.
Bill 203 was tabled in December 2014, just before MLA’s left for the winter break. Whittaker speculated that had the house not risen for the break, the bill might have been passed in a month.
“I think that level of support is a testament to the impact that the forestry industry has on communities in Alberta” said Whittaker.
“It’s a win for everyone,” said George. “It lets communities density, build more affordable housing for less money, and it generate increase in demand for forestry products which in turn will mean more work in the industry. It’s one of those good news stories.”