Companies & Industries

Why are governments favouring the use of wood over steel?

The ‘Wood First’ backlash grows

(Ben Nelms/Bloomberg/Getty)

(Ben Nelms/Bloomberg/Getty)

The images are of mangled wood house frames reduced to rubble after Oklahoma’s devastating tornado last May. Below are warnings of the limitations of wood construction when confronted with storms, insect damage and fire.

Introduced last June by the Canadian Concrete and Masonry Producers Association, these provocative, political-style attack ads are designed to draw negative attention to a growing forest of “wood first” laws, regulation Canada’s concrete and steel producers say is unfair, unwarranted and irresponsible with taxpayers’ money.

Now in force in more than 40 Canadian municipalities, wood-first policies require that lumber be the primary material in any publicly funded construction project. The idea took hold on a still larger scale in British Columbia in 2009, a time when the economic downturn, pine beetle damage and a sluggish U.S. housing market battered the province’s lumber industry. In addition to stimulating this sector—key to many small-town economies—the province’s Wood First Act aimed to assist climate policy by substituting carbon-emitting materials for carbon-sequestering ones.

Since then the idea has spread. Earlier this year Quebec introduced a wood charter, which doesn’t force but strongly encourages the use of lumber as the chief material in provincial projects. Like B.C., the province also revised building codes to allow for wood-frame housing up to six storeys, a height traditionally requiring concrete or steel. Meanwhile a similar Wood First Act has passed second reading in Ontario’s legislature.

Concrete and steel producers have heard enough. “We don’t believe that government…should have a role of mandating one building material over another,” says Tareq Ali, director of marketing for the Canadian Institute of Steel Construction. It creates an unfair advantage for the lumber industry, says Ali, which leads to “loss of innovation, loss of competitiveness, and…[the public] is not getting the best possible product they should be getting for their taxpayer dollars.”

Provinces may have an ulterior motive to favour wood in that they derive stumpage fees from their vast forest lands. But wood-first regulations at best help boost demand in specific areas for a limited time period, says Finn Poschmann, vice-president of research at the C. D. Howe Institute. “You could not possibly sustain a sector with that sort of policy globally because it’s too big a marketplace, and the best technology, the best materials will win out,” he says. “To fight against that process will simply to be turning trees into dollar bills, which we eventually burn.”

While B.C. has already stated it will not amend its law, wood first’s opponents say they will continue fighting for equal treatment for all building materials. Says Ali: “May the best material win.”