Charles Kelly: Why the Wood Innovation and Design Centre is neither good policy nor good government
The unfolding debacle of Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George is not an isolated event involving Pat Bell and forest industry lobbyists. It cuts to the very core of the premium placed on politics over sound policy by this provincial government.
From the first announcement of this proposed centre, B.C. premiers, cabinet ministers, and wood-works industry lobbyists have been advocating a 10-storey wood building. It mattered not that the B.C. Building Code only permits six-storey wood buildings. Cleverly they have managed to stretch a six-storey building to the equivalent height of nine storeys. It highlights the cavalier attitude toward the B.C. Building Code. The early stages of the procurement process now being revealed underscore a perversion of the public procurement process to achieve partisan objectives.
Both are an affront to citizens.
How did we get here? With the U.S. housing bubble bursting in 2008, the B.C. forest products sector was in a state of dire crisis. The premier, Gordon Campbell, and Pat Bell, as forests minister, were doing all they could to help and be seen to be helpful, as mills were closing and jobs shed. The Wood Innovation and Design Centre announcement was a positive message of a more promising future, to assist in developing new products and new markets. By the fall of 2009, with no U.S. housing turnaround in sight, Campbell and Bell introduced the Wood First Bill. The bill legislated as a requirement “the use of wood as the primary building material in all new provincially funded buildings”. It also insinuated the forestry ministry and the wood industry lobbyists into the public procurement process.
The bill was jammed through the legislature and signed into law in an incredible four weeks! Those that were pleading for some sort of rational discussion or debate to protect the freedom of design professionals to select the most appropriate construction material for its intended function and service were totally ignored and some intimidated into silence.
Their next major initiative in 2009 was the introduction of eight building code amendments to enable the building of six-storey wood frame buildings, without any prior consultation with key stakeholders and building and design experts. Again, building code amendments were railroaded into effect in eight weeks. This was a wholly inadequate time frame to request and receive substantive input from the professional building community. The changes moved forward despite concerns expressed by architecture and engineering professionals regarding fire resistance, water supply, flow capacity requirements for sprinklers, and the risks to firefighters and emergency responders. The case in point was no due consideration of the fire hazards during the building process that led to the Remy fire that almost burned down a residential block in Richmond in May 2011.
Contrary to its more recent claims of good government, the B.C. government has discarded rigorous analysis and evidence-based policy formulation. The B.C. Liberals have replaced that with political calculations.
The most outlandish move was to promote the Wood Innovation and Design Centre as a 10-storey wood-frame building, making it the tallest wood structure in the world. What about building codes, safety assessments, economic viability, and financial feasibility? Evidently, this government felt those are questions more suitably dealt with after the fact. That simply is not good and responsible government.
This entire situation has been a story of special interests versus the public interest, of crass politics over sound policy, of superficial public relations over rigorous due process. This is a tale of unbridled hubris, reckless partisanship, and politics over good governance, and the offensive arrogance of entitlement and power. It is a culture and mindset that leads to the people of British Columbia calling for change.