CCA’s metric conversion leadership

Unheralded as it may have been, January 1, 2018 was the 40th anniversary of M-Day. By definition, M-Day in 1978 was “the first day of the Metric Construction Year in which the Canadian construction industry will work mainly in the SI (système internationale). Following M-Day, drawings and specifications, material and components which are necessary in metric terms will become available.”

The Canadian Construction Association’s (CCA) involvement dated back to 1969 when the association made representations to the government of Canada advocating that Canada convert to metric SI. Expo 67 in Montreal provided the main impetus for this action. The great majority of the foreign pavilions were designed in metric in their respective countries but built by Canadian contractors. The latter were impressed by the relative ease of estimating and building with metric measurements and became “metric missionaries”.

In 1970 the federal government issued a white paper setting forth its policy objective of adopting Metric (SI). Subsequently, a resolution to this effect was adopted by all political parties and legislation amending the Weights & Measures Act and the Packaging & Labelling Act followed. Next came the Metric Commission Canada (MCC) to oversee the orderly conversion process. CCA past chair Tom Somerville was appointed a commissioner to represent the construction industry.

The MCC delegated the detailed planning to 150 sector committees representing the various segments of the Canadian economy. The Construction Sector Committee was the first to be formed. Its membership comprised representatives from 25 national organizations, standards bodies and government agencies. Stan Kent, the appointee of the architectural profession, and I served as co-chairs. John Westeinde represented general contractors. The construction sector’s plan was also the first to be completed and approved. That was in 1975. We were told that this achievement served to shame other sector committees into expediting their own metric conversion plans.

A primary, and prodigious, task for the Construction Sector Committee was to convert hundreds of CSA, CGSB, ULC and other standards and the National Building Code and related codes into Metric (SI). A relatively small number of construction components had to be ‘hard converted’ in rounded measurements to conform to the 100-mm construction module. The rest were not measurement sensitive and could be ‘soft converted’ into metric terms, although hard conversions were preferred. Many components were wall or floor mounted, surrounded by air, so their precise size was not important. Ceiling systems, however, had many components and their sizes had to be compatible. Many manufacturers, such as the steel mills, welcomed hard conversion as a basis for rationalizing (reducing) the number of sizes that had to be kept in stock. One by one, agreements were obtained from the suppliers of “measurement sensitive” materials and components to meet the metric demand by M-Day.

The federal and most provincial governments, power utilities and other public-sector owners committed to call tenders in metric detail after M-Day and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation announced that it would only approve metric plans after May 1, 1979. The M-Day goal was largely achieved, and good overall progress was made. By November 1979, it was confidently scheduled in the updated plan that construction sector conversion would be completed by the end of 1981. This mirrored the three-year transition period taken in Australia’s successful mandatory metric conversion.

So what happened? Canada still operates under a dual system of measurements. Plans for individual houses are usually designed in imperial (feet and inches). In grocery stores produce is commonly displayed with signage expressed in pounds, but converted to metric kilograms at the cash register. Three factors stand out by way of explanation.

Back in 1978 the major B.C. plywood manufacturers happily shipped metric sized sheets to foreign markets but qualified their commitment to supply the domestic market by requiring minimum orders of railway carloads several months in advance of their delivery. This was not the way that house builders operated. A major Canadian manufacturer of gypsum board had stock-piled metric-sized sheets across Canada but was left stranded because its sheets had to be the same size as the plywood sheets. This in turn meant that stud-spacing also had to conform to imperial sized sheets.

However, the main reason related to a federal election. Although the policy position of the Progressive Conservative Party supported metric conversion, several candidates in Western Canada advocated in the election campaign that this be discarded. When elected as MPs in the new government, they felt obliged to press for a policy change. A review committee recommended that conversion should be optional. The successor Liberal government chose not to change the policy. The overall metric conversion program accordingly lost its focus.

The third factor is the similar experience across the border. The United States government also launched a metric conversion program sometime after the Canadian initiative. It set an example with its own large-scale program of building and engineering projects. (With typical thoroughness, the schedule for the new U.S. Embassy in Ottawa established “kilometer stones” rather than “milestones”). A key incentive was provided in the roads program: federal grants for interstate highways were conditional upon being in metric. The major states and cities soon adopted metric for all their works. It had been expected that all federal construction would be fully converted to metric by 2000, with the rest of the construction industry following suit within a decade. But in 1998 a senator from North Dakota, where its small roads program remained non-metric, amended the 1975 Metric Usage Act to allow state governments to opt out of metrication. Federal funding dried up and in time the various governments reverted to inch-pound standards and practices. In 2005 New York State was the last to discard metric.

But in Canada, thanks to CCA’s leadership, those involved in building construction projects (including larger structures in the residential sector) and in engineering construction, enjoy the benefits of metric conversion today.