Wood performance

Wood buildings are fire safe

Today’s modern wood-frame and mass timber buildings have a proven fire safety record. Effective design and the use of state-of-the-art fire protection technologies in timber structures provide added assurance and help save lives. 

Meeting the same fire performance demands as any other material

The risk of fire is a concern for all buildings and construction sites. Every building material can suffer damage from prolonged exposure to fire: steel buckles, concrete spalls and wood burns. In response, the building industry has developed technologies and evolved building codes over the last half-century to dramatically reduce the negative impacts of fire and help ensure fire-safe construction. This includes taking full advantage of fire-retardant materials, sophisticated fire detection such as optical smoke sensors, advanced sprinkler and alarm systems and other smart building technologies.

Building codes, in British Columbia, and throughout North America, ensure your safety. They’re a proven set of performance-based objectives that all buildings must comply with. Recent advancements in B.C. and around the world permit taller wood construction. Such code changes are based on rigorous research and developed by experts through a collaborative process that includes input from all segments of the building community.

King David High School, Vancouver
Photo credit: Martin Tessler

School interior

Charring gives mass timber natural fire resistance

In the event of a fire, mass timber and engineered wood products char on the outside, forming a protective layer while retaining strength. This slows combustion significantly, allowing time to evacuate the building safely.

How mass timber charring protects:

  • When wood is exposed to fire, the exposed surface burns, creating a natural protective charred layer.
  • Char acts as insulation, delaying the onset of heating of the core of wood below. Due to the solid block makeup of mass timber, air and fire are inhibited in their travel.
  • Char forms at a predictable rate (1.5in/hr), which slows combustion and the spread of fire.

Close up of mass timber sections with exterior char after successful fire performance testing

Rigorous fire testing of mass timber buildings

Mass timber and tall wood buildings are proven to be fire safe. From cross-laminated timber (CLT) and dowel-laminated timber (DLT) to glue-laminated timber (glulam), mass timber’s strength, resilience and natural fire resistance is being backed up by some of the most comprehensive real-world testing scenarios to date.

Time and time again, testing shows in the event of a fire, mass timber and engineered wood products char on the outside, forming a protective layer while retaining strength. This slows combustion significantly, allowing time to evacuate a building safely. In fact, a recent series of national mass timber fire tests, dubbed the Mass Timber Demonstration Fire Test Program, show—even in worst-case fire scenarios—mass timber buildings provide strong fire performance similar to non-combustible construction. The bottom-line results: even under those rare conditions when fire services don’t intervene, the mass timber fire decays and begins to put itself out after ignition.

“These tests are giving municipalities, code officials, fire services and insurers a lot of good information—and it was really helpful that many of these folks were able to see the tests as they were conducted. It is becoming clearer through this research that mass timber buildings perform well and these buildings aren’t going to be any more difficult to put out a fire than a steel or a concrete building, when built to best practice standards,” says Steven Craft a fire engineering expert and founding principal at CHM Fire Consultants Ltd., one of the firms contributing to the fire test analysis and final report.

masstimer 1036

These findings add to a growing body of research and give added assurances to civic leaders, fire and rescue services, insurance underwriters and building occupants that mass timber buildings are safe. Furthermore, wood engineering and fire experts believe this latest round of fire tests provides strong evidence that the code can further evolve to allow for more exposed wood and taller mass timber buildings.

“This new series of fire testing shows that taller wood buildings, including those with exposed timber, do achieve fire safety standards and provide good fire performance, comparable to other building materials. They provide strong evidence to evolve the national building code,” explains Marc Alam, senior manager, codes and standards for Canadian Wood Council.

Mass timber demonstration fire test program
photo credit: courtesy of canadian wood council


Mass timber building in the late stages of fire testing, with smoldering in the interior.

The Mass Timber Demonstration Fire Test Program

Light-frame wood buildings' proven safety record

Light-frame wood construction has a long-standing safety record in British Columbia. It is used in the vast majority of single-family homes and multi-family projects up to six storeys. While the structure may be made entirely of wood, protective materials such as gypsum wallboard can provide fire resistance as needed. Light-frame wood assemblies can resist the effects of a fire for up to two hours through design and fire-resistant materials. And research shows that light-frame wood construction is just as safe as other building types.

Light-frame construction
Photo credit: Nik West

Light-frame construction beams and roof trusses shown being installed on low-rise residential structure by construction worker with nail gun and fall arrest harness

Handy tool helps designers meet codes using wood

CodeCHEK, developed under the WoodWorks BC program by the Canadian Wood Council allows users to test which type of wood construction can meet code and fire protection requirements. From light-frame wood and heavy timber to exposed and encapsulated mass timber, this tool can help troubleshoot different design options and evaluate which wood elements are permitted.


How the tallest timber building in B.C. might be the safest

In the case of Brock Commons, an 18-storey timber tower, the design team took extensive measures to boost fire protection. As result, the building’s design was embraced by the local firefighting community. “I would call this extremely safe from a fire perspective. It’s a very safe building,” said Ray Bryant assistant chief of community safety in the City of Vancouver.

Local and international experts reviewed the building’s fire safety solutions to meet stringent standards. This included the encapsulation of the mass timber elements in the gypsum board to achieve the required fire-resistance rating and a sprinkler system with an on-site backup water tank and fire pump. “They’ve sealed every floor and every compartment. If a fire does start somewhere, it will not spread beyond the compartment,” noted Chuck Stanford, chief training officer at Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services.

Brock Commons Tallwood House, UBC
Photo credit: Michael Elkan Photography

Brock Commons Tallwood House

Brock Commons Tallwood House

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Exterior daytime view of five story TWU Jacobson Hall, showing modular prefabricated hybrid / wood construction in addition to structural Glue-laminated timber (Glulam), parallel strand lumber (PSL), and cross-laminated timber (CLT)
Multi-family + Residential

Trinity Western University Jacobson Hall

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Internal view of Brock Commins Tallwood House, showing mass timber columns, light frame construction, and prefabricated wooden panels.


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