History of the code

For a long time the Building Code of Australia (BCA) limited the height of constructions that used timber as the primary building resource, due to concerns over its potential to combust in a fire.

Up until this point, only concrete or steel were considered as “˜non-combustible’ construction, and therefore deemed-to-satisfy (DTS) for tall, non-domestic buildings such as apartments or commercial office buildings.

Technically speaking, the BCA didn’t restrict the use of timber; it placed an impediment on the use of timber by asking for “˜alternative engineering’. This required developers to create a fire engineering plan for a specific building proposal, and demonstrate that a proposed timber building could still meet the performance requirements of the BCA before being approved. This was an expensive and painstaking process for all parties involved, and therefore a path not often taken up.

In 2015 the Forest and Wood Products Association (FWPA) prepared a proposal for change (PFC) to the National Construction Code (NCC) for the use of timber framing for buildings classified in class two (apartments) and three (hotels), and up to 25 m in height (approximately eight storeys high).

The aim was to ensure that both lightweight timber framing and massive timber systems could be used in mid to high-rise construction, and would be able to be used in combination with appropriate layers of fire resistant plasterboard and sprinklers.

A changing Australian timber industry

“This is probably the biggest change or new market opportunity for wood in more than 30 years.” Says Ric. “It is equivalent to when softwood came in as a framing material and was starting to replace the hardwood frames, a change which occurred was 30 to 40 years ago.”

“It has created a market that timber hasn’t been in before, and this is going to be an opportunity for two major types of products. The first being the traditional framing products such as stick framing, the second being massive timber products including cross laminated timber, Glulam, and others.”

The DTS provision created what Ric refers to as “a recipe for using wood” in three classes of buildings in up to eight classes of height.

Despite the fact timber has the capacity to be used for these new applications, Ric says “It is important for people to realise that in these buildings you are not going to see any wood.”

This is because the DTS “˜recipe’ is based around fire-resistant plaster board, sprinklers, and a number of detailing requirements. So the end-user in the building will not see the timber – the finished product will look like a steel or concrete building because it’s behind plasterboard.

Ric explains “We put in a lot of market research, both with consumers and with specifiers, and it is quite clear that wood is their preferred resource to use, but it was often too complex to use.

“Therefore, they fell back on predictable materials like concrete and steel. What we are trying to do with this program is make wood easier to use by providing design tools, or a range of solutions, that can be used in business practice.

“What we need to do now is take that market opportunity and allow it to become a business solution for timber merchants, fabricators, manufacturers, and forest growers. This is an opportunity that opens up the space for everybody. ”
Making waves, making changes

For the FWPA and other industry entities, it has been a very long road in getting these changes passed.

“Two years ago we secured a minor change in the building code to increase hotel and motel construction from one storey to three storeys,” says Ric. “We were trying to address the issues of combustibility in the building code.”

The FWPA started to accelerate its plans about three to four years ago because the organisation saw that the market was moving significantly towards more medium to high density construction. The Australian Building Code Board (ABCB) had previously adjusted the code every year and, since then, they went to a three year cycle.

Ric says “So if we had missed the window for this one, we would have missed our opportunity till 2019. We put a lot of resources into trying to build a very comprehensive and robust case to make sure that we got this through.
“The key to building the case was Boris Iskra, FWPA’s standards and codes manager, and Paul England, FWPA’s contract fire engineer.”

The team worked collaboratively with a range of professional associations and other experts in this field to try and ensure that the solution was sufficiently robust both in terms of lightweight timber framing and massive timber. They needed to make sure the solution was applicable to both.

When the team finalised their submission in February 2015, the proposal had to go through the ABCB’s technical committee.

Industry transitions

The ABCB released the new National Construction Code (NCC) on 1 February 2016, and it will be adopted by each of the states, with each state having the option to apply variations to the code. It’s expected that these new regulations will be fully operational by 1 May 2016.

Ric says “We will be working with building surveyors and architects in the meantime to help implement this change, and we will be making sure that they receive professional development and accreditation.

“In Victoria we are actually looking at doing something very special; we will be setting up a Wood Solutions Technical Field Force. This will be a technical team that will deal directly with developers to help them adopt wood-based technology. I’m hoping it will be a three year pilot program with the intention that it will roll out nationally if successful.”

A new frontier

According to Ric, this development will enable the industry to move into a new, rapidly growing market.

“Even though Australia has had the largest number of housing starts in history, the traditional detached housing market has not changed that much. Most of the growth has come from multi-residential and mid to high-rise buildings,” he says.

But this change won’t be without challenges. “To date, the sector hasn’t had much exposure to building developers. This change will require modifications from the industry, particularly for the frame and truss industry, in terms of their business approach and model. They will have to establish how they can build a profitable business model from this new client base.

“For the sawmill operators, timber importers, and the entire timber merchant sector, the challenge will be supplying to this increased demand for a larger range of product sizes and structural capabilities,” he says.

Finding support

Ric says that the FWPA has been working with the Frame & Truss Manufacturers Association’s Kersten Gentle for some time, discussing how businesses can be supported.

“A piece of advice for all business owners is to examine the case studies overseas. In particular, the west coast of the United States and Canada have been building high-rise timber buildings for some time now, and it is because they utilised their frame and truss sector.”

Stay calm and carry on

When asked whether he thought the Australian timber industry is prepared for this large industry change, Ric says “If it was effective as of tomorrow – I would say no, but the fact of the matter is that buildings take a long time from conception before being finalised.

“We are expecting that from the commencement date of the code Australia-wide, May 2016, it will take over 12 months to see buildings erected from the code changes. I believe there is enough time ahead for the industry to come together and gain the solutions it needs.

“We are already in a good position and have a great capacity to deal with these changes. It’s an exciting and positive time for everyone,” Ric says.