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A rendering of Sidewalk Labs's proposed Toronto development shows a courtyard surrounded by buildings incorporating innovative timber construction.

HANDOUT/Reuters

An Alphabet company’s vision for a “smart city” project in Toronto includes buildings made of timber that are five times the current limit, potentially steering the company into the challenges of timber innovation in Canada.

Sidewalk Labs’ proposal includes developing 30-plus story buildings made of timber, close to Toronto’s central business district, as part of their commitment to sustainability.

Sustainability is a “key factor” in evaluating the proposal, said Andrew Tumilty, spokesman for Waterfront Toronto, the government-mandated agency in charge of the Quayside development.

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The issue typifies the multitude of challenges Sidewalk faces in getting its smart city off the ground – including governmental regulations that are years behind current technology, and a shrunken geography for the project that brings into question the viability of many of their proposals.

Sidewalk’s project will be voted on by Waterfront Toronto’s board for final approval on March 31, 2020.

Timber buildings have long been popular in Europe, because of their climate-friendly potential. The trees used to build them hold carbon, are cleaner to produce than concrete and steel, and are less carbon-heavy to transport, according to the United Nations.

In North America they have been slow to catch on.

Wooden columns and beams are one of the innovative design features of the proposed Quayside development.

Fred Lum

David Hine, a building code consultant with 30 years of experience in Ontario who has worked on timber buildings in the past, said that without “huge political influence,” he doubted a 30-story building would be permitted in code in the next 20 years.

Toronto has “become significantly more bureaucratic and (shown) reluctance to being the leaders in Ontario to reviewing uniquely configured buildings,” Hine said.

Sidewalk has defended the choice, stating that the Quayside land is permitted to be high-density, and the tall timber buildings are accommodating that.

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But they acknowledge it is not a given.

“We’re trying to push as far as we can with the mass timber,” Karim Khalifa, Sidewalk’s director of buildings innovation, said in a phone interview, adding that they would look at hybrid buildings if necessary to satisfy the code.

The challenge of meeting the building code is that this means they do not function as a standard office or residential building, said James Ware, a building code consultant in Toronto.

“It is more performance-based than just ticking the boxes of the building code,” Ware said.

Sidewalk is wading into a conversation that has been years in the making – but their timing is good, said Jamie Lim, chief executive of the Ontario Forest Industries Association, and she is optimistic about future changes to the code.

“Tall wood buildings have been taking place, we’re just saying let’s make sure (Canada is) keeping up,” Lim said.

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