Celebrate safe tall wood buildings

May is Building Safety Month. And why not? We have a National Corn Dog Day each year, so surely we ought to have a Building Safety Month.

According to the International Code Council (ICC), an association dedicated to developing the building codes and safety standards used in design and construction across the U.S. and internationally, Building Safety Month is a public awareness campaign, celebrated by jurisdictions worldwide for the past 38 years, to help folks understand what it takes to create safe, sustainable structures.

This year’s celebration is particularly apt because it comes barely two weeks after the ICC approved – by substantial margins – 14 proposed amendments to the International Building Code related to tall wood buildings. I attended ICC hearings held in Columbus, Ohio, to consider the code amendments, and testified in favor of them on behalf of Oregon’s Wood Products Working Group. Convened by the office of Gov. Kate Brown, the group works to expand and support the state’s advanced wood products industry.

Combined, the proposed code amendments would allow three new types of mass timber construction, including tall wood buildings of up to 18 stories. Here in Oregon, the state’s Code Review Committee has since voted to adopt the code changes approved by the ICC in Columbus into Oregon’s state building code, word for word. Assuming that recommendation makes it through the Building Codes Structures Board, it will be easier to obtain a building permit to construct a tall wood building in Oregon starting in October 2019.

These actions taken by the pre-eminent construction-code bodies are ample evidence that tall wood buildings are safe. Skeptics, though, might feel the need to see for themselves the evidence considered by the code bodies, nearly all of which addresses fire safety. To help spread the word about the safety of tall wood buildings, the Mass Timber Code Coalition, consisting of building officials, architects, engineers and a wide range of organizations including OFRI, is providing complete information on the proposed changes to the International Building Code on buildtallbuildsafe.com, including fire test results.

But mass timber building safety doesn’t stop there. Last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Lab, in conjunction with WoodWorks and the Softwood Lumber Board, led a series of live blast tests  to demonstrate the capability of cross-laminated timber (CLT) structures to resist a bomb explosion. The results have led the U.S. Department of Defense to expand the use of wood for blast-resistant construction.

Right here in Oregon, the design team for Framework, a 12-story CLT building soon to break ground in Portland’s Pearl District, has devised and tested an innovative structural system for the building. It will not only have state-of-the-art seismic safety, but also require minimal repairs following an earthquake. Post-tensioned cables will allow the structure to rock back and forth during an earthquake and then re-center itself when the shaking is done. That means that, unlike the vast majority of buildings – which are designed only to allow for occupants to safely evacuate during an earthquake – Framework will not need to be demolished and rebuilt once the initial danger has passed.

So … your corn dog likely has a wooden stick, and it certainly deserves its day, but chances are it’s not nearly as safe for you as these new wood buildings.

Timm Locke

Director of Forest Products

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