Australian developers and architects may soon be able to build with taller timber at lower costs than before if a proposal being developed by Forest and Wood Products Australia (FWPA) is approved by the Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB).

The proposal, developed by FWPA in conjunction with fire engineers and in consultation with various industry groups, aims to include a deemed-to-satisfy requirement in the National Construction Code (NCC) for the use of wood up to 25 metres.

Current codes do not specifically restrict the use of wood in high buildings, but makes it difficult and costly to do so. One of the reasons is the need for extensive fire engineering.

“What we want to do is take lightweight timber construction, which can be used up to three storeys for both Class 2 and Class 3 buildings, much higher, but also introduce mass timber construction like Cross Laminated Timber [into the building code],” explains Ric Sinclair, managing director of the FWPA.

The proposal, designed to be conservative and to ensure occupant safety whilst being commercially viable, rests on two key prerequisites – the use of sprinklers for projects above three storeys, and fire resistant plasterboards on all exposed wood.

“One of the advantages of this proposal is its element of deregulation,” says Sinclair. “A deemed-to-satisfy requirement allows a safe harbour – if you meet the criteria, then it’s accepted by the building inspectors.”

If approved by the ABCB, the changes could significantly reduce the costs of constructing tall timber buildings. This in turn would make the method more accessible to second and third tier developers.

The team is currently in talks with a range of professional associations like the Property Council, as well as the Commonwealth and State governments, to ensure that the industry is aware of the proposal, allowing them to take on board any concerns.

Sinclair adds that they are undertaking a ‘Monte Carlo’ analysis, whereby ‘what if’ scenarios are recognised and addressed to ensure people are able to get out of timber buildings safely, in case the sprinklers fail or if the fire brigade is late.

The proposal for change has to be submitted to the ABCB by February 1, 2015. Because the building code is moving from annual to three-yearly reviews, a decision on the proposal is expected to be announced in May 2015, and if approved to be implemented in 2016.