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UBC’s Earth Sciences Building, winner of a 2013 B.C. Wood Design Award, was designed by the Vancouver office of Perkins + Will to reduce the carbon footprint of the energy-intensive, lab-focused building. (Martin Tessler)
UBC’s Earth Sciences Building, winner of a 2013 B.C. Wood Design Award, was designed by the Vancouver office of Perkins + Will to reduce the carbon footprint of the energy-intensive, lab-focused building. (Martin Tessler)

Lisa Rochon

Going with the grain, and building with wood Add to ...

Not long ago, in Scarborough, on the eastern edge of Toronto, I was accused by a supporter of Mayor Rob Ford of being a tree hugger. Actually, the man was condemning all downtown urbanites as “anti-casino tree huggers.” The memory tickled like a feather, and then earlier this month I found myself on the West Coast hugging a giant sequoia so massive it prevented four adults from rounding its trunk with outstretched arms.

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Send me to the gallows, but I’m in love with trees, and the potential for poetic, resilient architecture built from them. In British Columbia, a series of award-winning projects reveal that Vancouver-based architects and engineers are making strides in leading the world with their all-wood designs. And so they should: Canada is a nation rich in sustainably managed forests; 40 per cent of the world’s certified supply of wood is Canadian.

Why is it that rooms lined in wood make us feel instantly nurtured and calm? Some neuroscientists tell us that our connection to the complex patterns in wood grains goes back to the cradle of civilization, when humans first laid eyes on the acacia tree in the African Savannah. Maybe the geometry of trees – and wood – is lodged within our genes.

New technologies in superstrong prefabricated wood, including that manufactured in a few specialized cross-laminating presses in B.C. and Ontario, mean that all-wood structures can climb higher than ever at less cost than concrete or steel-frame buildings. When developers finally compute that wood makes economic sense while being kind to the environment, expect a sharp rise in all-wood construction.

Here’s the latest on what’s being accomplished with wood in forward-thinking B.C.

Wood to the (elevator) core

Teamwork and collaboration among forest companies, manufacturers, architects and engineers runs deep. The design for the $25-million Wood Innovation and Design Centre (WIDC), a modest all-wood tower set to begin construction next spring in Prince George, has been awarded to Vancouver’s gurus of innovation in wood: architect Michael Green and engineer Eric Karsh of Equilibrium Consulting.

“WIDC is a major leap forward in wood design for us,” says Green, a passionate advocate for sustainable tall towers in wood. “It is an all-wood system above the foundation and will be North America’s tallest wood building (for now).”

The Centre will dispel myths about wood, using it throughout the WIDC building, even for the elevator core. Some of the cladding wood will be charred to create a protective layer that resists potential flame spread and protects from UV-light degradation.

Green and I toured his muscular City of North Vancouver Civic Centre renovation with its interior walls of black-stained cedar and a roof system that alternates extra-strong lumber with glass. It’s a stunning new civic living room built from certified forests.

A gorgeous carbon fighter

One of Canada’s main clients for all-wood architecture is the University of British Columbia. Touring the campus, I was struck by the presence of wood in newly opened buildings – key to the university’s mandate to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions 67 per cent by 2020.

The $133-million Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, designed by Saucier + Perrotte Architectes/Hughes Condon Marler Architects, is picking up national and global awards for its stunning architectural composition: an exterior of glass walls punched out with shimmering balconies; and inside, a lobby sculpted like a careening vessel, with walls and ceiling clad in lightning bolts of red cedar.

As strong as concrete

UBC’s Earth Sciences Building, winner of a 2013 B.C. Wood Design Award, was designed by the Vancouver office of Perkins + Will to reduce the carbon footprint of the energy-intensive, lab-focused building. Configured to be as strong as concrete, the building is made of laminated strand lumber – a variety of woods glued and pressed together – in mass panels. Even the concrete floors are reinforced not with steel but wood. Cantilevered above a five-storey atrium are solid glulam (glued, laminated timber) stairs that extend more than six metres from the landing.

“Wood buildings can be designed to meet acoustic, vibration and strength requirements,” says project architect Jana Foit, “and perform as well as concrete buildings.” The structure sequesters roughly 1,000 tons of CO2 annually, the equivalent of taking 415 cars off the road.

Sunlight and shelter

UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability actively harvests sunlight, and captures waste heat from a neighbouring facility. Designed by Peter Busby of Perkins + Will, it glams up the campus as well. At its entrance is a fine-grained sheltering canopy where visitors can park their bikes; inside, wood that is pine-beetle killed is lifted and carved in ways that allow for 100-per-cent daylight and ventilation.

The man from Scarborough was right. I’m an urbanite tree hugger – and a defender of advanced all-wood architecture. It’s written in my genes.

For more on new and ancient design ideas from around the world, follow Lisa Rochon’s blog, chasinghome.org.

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