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Handout image of "The Steps," a new proposed office building by architects 3XN for developers HinesHines/Hines

Toronto’s waterfront could soon get the tallest wood-framed office tower in North America. And it’s not being built by Google or Sidewalk Labs.

The developer Hines announce their plans for a new office building on Monday, a proposed project by the prominent Danish architects 3XN that will move the science and art of wood building forward.

It would reach 40.7 metres in height, making it one of the tallest timber-framed buildings – and the tallest such office tower – in North America.

Mass timber buildings have been in the news over the past few months, as the Google sister company Sidewalk Labs explores its ambition to build an entire district out of mass timber, with towers reaching unprecedented heights of 20 or more storeys. They are working with B.C.'s Michael Green Architecture along with other design firms.

The Hines building on Queens Quay East, of about 270,000 square feet, is less dramatic than that, but more realistic. It suggests how mass timber could have a real impact on North American cities in the next few years, delivering lighter and more sustainable construction in a leasable box.

The structure – the architects give it the nickname “The Steps” – would offer 10 levels of office space, punctuated by a set of tall open shared spaces that (yes) step upward through the centre of its mass, creating a long diagonal atrium defined by columns and beams of golden softwood.

The exterior, lined by retail, would be mostly glass. It would be studded with vertical fins that may be made of wood. The main structure certainly will be wood, specifically mass timber – softwood assembled into large structural components that have a much small carbon footprint than concrete or steel. They are fire-resistant, lightweight and, importantly, really nice to look at.

T3 office building in downtown Minneapolis, by Michael Green Architecture.Michael Green Architecture/Michael Green Architecture

“It’s exciting to work with this material,” says Kim Herforth Nielsen, the architect who leads the Copenhagen-based 3XN. His company won a private design competition, among a handful of other design firms, to win the job. “It’s a very sustainable way of building,” he says, “and the material brings a lot of ambience – it gives you a nice feeling, just being around it.”

The developers see a market for that ambience among “creative office” tenants – predominantly the tech sector.

“Our goal is: How do we provide tenants with what they seem to really like, a brick and beam feel, and bring it into the 21st century?” says Avi Tesciuba, a senior managing director at Hines who heads their Canadian operations. Hines has been chasing that thesis for several years, starting with their T3 building in downtown Minneapolis, which I wrote about in 2017.

That all-new mass timber office building was designed by Vancouver’s Michael Green Architecture and engineers Fast + Epp. Hines is now constructing a similar building in Atlanta, and has others in the works in at least three American cites – and, Mr. Tesciuba says, somewhere else in Toronto. They also plan, in the short term, to create a twin building for The Steps that would be its mirror image.

Meanwhile, the new waterfront neighbourhood where Hines is building, called Bayside, is next to the 12-acre area that Sidewalk Labs is now working on.

“We’re excited that they’re next to us, and we’re excited that they’re advocates for timber,” Mr. Tesciuba says. Otherwise, the project has nothing to do with Sidewalk.

And it is primed to move more quickly than anything Sidewalk is doing. Hines executives say they have been in advanced discussions with Toronto building officials about getting technical approvals – which are required for any wood building more than six floors. Hines vice-president Michael Gross says the firm is “confident” it will get a building permit, and plans to start construction in early 2020, for completion in late 2021.

The architects and developer, along with developer Tridel, are already working on two showy condo buildings next door to The Steps site, dubbed Aquabella and Aqualuna. An exhibition of 3XN’s work, Waterfront Architecture: Placemaking and Context, will open its doors to the public inside the sales centre on Monday.

More generally, Toronto is seeing a boom in wood building. Right around the corner from the 3XN site, a 12-storey building for George Brown College, The Arbour by architects Moriyama & Teshima with Acton Ostry, is planned to rise 52.5 metres – although its construction has not yet been confirmed.

A few kilometres away, the University of Toronto is further along in planning an academic tower by Patkau Architects and MJMA that would rise 74.5 metres; this was submitted for city approval in the fall. And architects Quadrangle and developer Hullmark are nearing completion of a five-storey wood building now.

These projects use a mix of wood fabrication techniques. Hines is considering both cross-laminated timber, in which layers of wood are glued together, and dowel-laminated timber, in which hunks of wood are pierced and held together by dowels.

Assuming the developers can overcome all the technical and commercial hurdles, the building – or the pair of them – promise to be well-mannered and beautiful.

Much of the wood on the interior is going to be left uncovered, including much of the structural frames and the staircases, too, which will continue all the way from bottom to top. These won’t be architectural icons, but they do represent bold steps toward a new way of building.