Graded lumber a provincial requirement, not regional one

The requirement to use graded lumber is a provincial building code one, said John Southam, Building Manager for the RDCK.

  • Dec. 19, 2013 11:00 a.m.

At the recent NACFOR Local Forest Economy workshop, dealing with the RDCK rule of not allowing ungraded lumber in local construction was identified as one issue that need to be tackled. But the issue isn’t one that can be resolved by the RDCK: the requirement to use graded lumber is a provincial building code one, said John Southam, Building Manager for the RDCK.

“Some of the confusion is that the building code is provincial, but the RDCK is required to administer it,” Southam told the Arrow Lakes News.

But not all wood needs to be graded either. Siding and trim, for example, are exempt as is wood used in some outbuildings. Lumber that is structural, however, needs a grader’s stamp of approval.

At a large mill, that stamp is a literal one. Mills like Interfor and Kalesnikoff employ graders who work on a production line and are able to make very quick determinations as to the grade of the lumber, said Southam. Graders identify the tree species, ensure the lumber is below a certain moisture content, and give the wood assignations of Select Structural, or a grade number one, two or three. Lumber stamped with “two or better” is allowable in construction. The work of the graders, who control the quality of lumber from a mill, is overseen by the Council of Forest Industries.

COFI are also an organization who offers courses for graders, the first part of which is a 10-12 week classroom course teaching species identification, lumber characteristics, and how to recognize them and apply them to a grade. After receiving the lumber grading diploma, hopeful graders train on the mill floor and have their skills tested on the job. If they score 95 per cent or higher, they are certified as lumber grade. If graders quit and move to another facility, they have to start the certification process all over again, said COFI’s Manager of Quality Control Gary Desrosier.

COFI issues grading stamps to mills, and they stay there. Facilities with stamps are inspected 12 times a year, and that costs money.

“Grade stamping is not for the little ma and pa operations,” Desrosier told the Arrow Lakes News.

Because it’s too hard to keep track of traveling stamps, said Desrosier, too hard to keep track of lumber that has been graded, COFI does not allow stamps to leave a mill.

But lumber can be graded without a stamp, if you can find a grader willing to do it, said Desrosiers, as well as a building inspector willing to accept unstamped lumber.

Southam said the provincial building code has always required graded lumber in construction, and in 2004 the provincial government removed the ability of local governments to reduce building code requirements. Even so, building inspectors have the ability to make decisions at their discretion as long as they conform to the code.

For their part, larger mills have been vocal in their support of industry standards across the board.

“Industry wants standardization across jurisdictions,” Southam told the Arrow Lakes News, pointing out that it’s expensive for them to keep a grader on payroll, something they need to do to ensure their lumber keeps being graded to a high standard.

“A lot of these things are industry-driven, including the building code,” noted Southam. But it’s local government that enforces building codes, and it’s those local government that take the flack from constituents who would like to use high-quality lumber from small regional mills.

RDCK Area K director Paul Peterson is very familiar with this dynamic.

“I would like to see something set up with where we can grade lumber here,” said RDCK Area K director Paul Peterson. “We put out the best wood in the province, there’s no doubt about that.”

And it is local elected representatives that are the voice of small industry at the table, said Southam. And the RDCK is trying to find a mechanism that upholds provincial standards and allows lumber produced locally to be used, he said.

After the building code changed substantially in 2006, Alternative Solutions were used to allow building with non-standard materials. Under this system, the construction proposed and rational given by an expert such as an engineer or an architect would be acceptable, as long as it meets the objectives of the building code.

Local timber frame builder Dave Madden is very familiar with this process. Because all of his projects are engineered, the engineer is the one who guarantees the quality of the wood, Madden told the Arrow Lakes News.

Another aspect that could be used under Alternative Solutions would be to have graders come in to small mills on an interim basis to issue a letter that the lumber met the grade in lieu of a stamp, said Southam.

But do local people use ungraded lumber building their houses? In general, Southam doesn’t believe milling lumber for a residence is cost-effective, and isn’t something inspectors run across very often.

“If [ungraded lumber] is in a shed, it’s more likely it will be approved,” said the Building Manager, “if it’s in a half-million or million dollar home, no.”

The Regional District is not in the business of taking on liability for not following the building code, he added. Having gone through a couple discovery processes which can be long and expensive (and which he characterized as “not fun”), he knows of what he speaks.

“You’d better have a really good reason for a decision that could turn out to be very expensive to the taxpayers.”


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