Fireproof Wood Poised to Save Houses, the Earth
Emily Pollock posted on July 03, 2018 |
UBC’s newest residence, Brock Commons, is a steel/wood/concrete hybrid with 70 percent wood fiber cladding. Fire-suppressant wood company M-Fire wants to break into the growing market for tall wood buildings. (Image courtesy of UBC News.)
UBC’s newest residence, Brock Commons, is a steel/wood/concrete hybrid with 70 percent wood fiber cladding. Fire-suppressant wood company M-Fire wants to break into the growing market for tall wood buildings. (Image courtesy of UBC News.)

The phrase “wood buildings” conjures up images of flammable, unsafe architecture, but M-Fire Suppression Inc. is looking to change that picture. And it wants its fire-resistant wood to be the new face of ecologically friendly building.

One of the most common tests of a material’s fire resistance is a spread test, where inspectors measure how long it takes fire to spread across the material as compared to control materials. Class A is the most fire-resistant class, and M-Fire is currently the only company making Class A fire-protected cross-laminated timber. To do that, the company infuses wood with surfactants that allow fire inhibitors to migrate into the pockets of oxygen in the wood. The result is a product much eco-friendlier than most traditional fire inhibition. M-Fire is currently the only Class A fire inhibitor with UL Greenguard Gold certification, which means that it’s safe around children and schools.

“We don’t even like the name fire retardant near our brand. We’re a fire inhibitor,” said Steve Conboy, the company’s chairman and general manager. “What happens is, we inhibit fire because we break the chemical reaction in the fire.” The inhibitor breaks the chain of free radicals (H+, OH- and O-) released during combustion, giving the fire nothing to feed on.

The fire protection results in what Conboy calls “defended carbon”: carbon that is stored in the wood and will never be released into the atmosphere. A carbon-absorbing building material gives M-Fire’s wood a distinct advantage over carbon-producing alternatives like structural steel.

The Trump administration’s tariffs have given them another advantage over steel: for future projects, wood might be a cheaper alternative. “I think projects going forward are going to start the design with wood versus steel, because now we can go high rise,” said Conboy.

Indeed, recent projects have proven that it’s possible to build tall buildings with wood as a major structural component. The University of British Columbia recently build a 17-story-tall student residence of mall wood, steel and concrete, making it the tallest wood building in the world. The building, supported on two concrete cores and glue-laminated wood columns, was finished its construction four months ahead of schedule. Inspired by their success, Sumitomo Forestry is planning the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper in Tokyo, dwarfing UBC’s building.

When asked about M-Fire’s future, Conboy spoke about potentially breaking into wildfire defense. The current first-line defense against wildfires is fire retardants like Phos-Chek, a foam dropped from helicopters ahead of an advancing fire. “We think that when a fire is burning, you’ve already lost it,” Conboy says.“You don’t want to be out in front of the fire, where the fire is going.” Instead, he proposes prespraying at-risk vegetation with M-Fire suppressant: “With our chemistry, we can be spraying [the area] two months in advance, if you need to.”


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