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When is a building not a building?


In Alberta, buildings are generally constructed in conformance to the Alberta Building Code and the Alberta Fire Code.  These documents provide a prescriptive approach to building design, providing minimum criteria for the performance of construction materials and systems used in the buildings.  Unfortunately there are some buildings in Alberta that are exempt from these requirements.  As a result there are a number of potentially unsafe conditions that can occur in these buildings that are of particular interest to fire investigators. These exempt buildings are farm buildings.
                                       
Farm buildings in Alberta, are specifically exempted from the requirements of the Alberta buildings Code.  Because we use the Alberta Building Code in Alberta, this means that these buildings have also been exempted from the National Farm Code.  This code lays out the minimum requirements for buildings used on farms but does not apply in Alberta.  This has resulted in a bit of a free for all regarding the materials and designs used for the construction on farm buildings.  As there are no criteria, there are also no minimum standards.  While there is some understandable desire in Alberta to limit regulation on farmers, the lack of minimum criteria also allows farmers to be taken advantage of.  A number of suppliers of building materials and temporary structures will often use substandard designs for installations on farms to provide the cheapest solutions (to ensure a sale) to the farmer’s needs regardless of the potential human cost.

This is of particular interest to fire investigators for two reasons.  First, the lack of minimum standards can often mean that unsafe (from a fire perspective) conditions can exist with farm structures that would not normally be present in most other structures.  Second, if a fire occurs within a substandard structure, this can result in a danger to both fire suppression teams and later on to the investigators as the structure may be compromised sooner.

An example of this problem is the use of uncoated polyurethane foam on the interior of buildings as a form of insulation.  Exposed cellular insulation is specifically identified in the Alberta Building Code and the National Farm code as a fire hazard and these codes do not allow its use without some type of containment covering.  This prevents excessive fire spread within the building and prevents exposing fire fighters to dangerous fumes from the burning insulation.

Fortunately, what most people, including many engineers don’t realize is that not all farm buildings are exempt from the Alberta Building Code.  In particular, most are not exempt, despite the explicit exemption in the Building Code.  There are a number of structures still covered by the building code including buildings used as abbatoirs, meat processing plants, dairy manufacturing plants, buildings used for non-farming commercial activity (welding shop), riding arenas and dwelling units.

If you suspect that a farm building has been improperly built, it may be an important factor in the cause of the fire.  There may also be a standard practice that was not followed.  As a consequence, you may want to check your building code or a local inspector.  Be warned, however, that there are limited rules for these types buildings.


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