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The six-storey, timber-framed One Young Street office building in downtown Kitchener, Ont. is the first mass timber building of its kind in the Waterloo region.Timmerman Timber

As anyone journeying through Canada’s major cities can attest, the country continues to go through a construction boom despite the ongoing pandemic. Construction cranes dot most cityscapes, marking the erection of condo and apartment buildings, even the odd office tower.

To the average observer, the skeletal frames of these buildings look pretty much the same as they did 10 or 20 years ago: A frame of steel girders armoured in poured concrete.

Sadly, modern buildings are major polluters. During construction and over their lifetimes they account for nearly 30 per cent of all greenhouse gases while construction and demolition makes up 35 per cent of landfill waste, according to the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC). So it’s fair to ask: Is the commercial construction industry is getting cleaner and greener?

A quick answer is yes, but slowly.

The good news is that we stack up pretty well internationally: since 2004, the worldwide green building certification program Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design – known as LEED – has certified over 4,350 buildings in Canada and registered over 8,500 to LEED standards, giving Canada the second highest number of LEED projects anywhere in the world.

That’s merely a good start, says Thomas Mueller, president and chief executive officer of the CaGBC.

“Other than the buildings that are constructed to green standards, you see a bit of innovation here and there, but it is certainly not widespread,” he says.

The Vancouver-based green building expert singles out condo developers as the slowest to adopt new environmental and sustainable practices. Because they have a build-and-sell model, they are far less likely to incorporate green technologies, which may take decades before they pay back.

One sustainable building practice that looks set for wider adoption is the use of mass timber to replace structural steel girders. Already in Canada there have been timber buildings as tall as 14 storeys and timber is slowly gaining acceptance, particularly in British Columbia and Ontario.

At first glance, massive timbers look to be far more expensive than the steel beams they are intended to replace. But using wood beams tends to reduce costs in other areas, eliminating the need for drywall, for example, and allowing crews to finish construction faster than with traditional building approaches.

“Right now, the industry is still not mature enough to start seeing enough examples of what the savings are to using timber,” says Charlie Ferguson, director of construction and operations with mass timber builder Timmerman Timber of New Lowell, Ont.

When pitching clients on the benefits of mass timber, Mr. Ferguson touts the fact that buildings are completed and ready for tenants up to 25 per cent faster than those made primarily of steel and concrete because much of the structure is prefabricated offsite and has lower labour costs generally.

The Friday Harbour Lake Club in Innisfil, Ont.Timmerman Timber

Although not constructed by Timmerman, he points to the 18-storey Brock Commons Tallwood House timber building in Vancouver as what can be achieved. The world’s tallest mass timber building at the time of its construction, its wood skeleton was largely pre-built and put up in just three months – two months faster than planned. It was opened in mid-2017 to University of British Columbia student residents.

Timmerman’s recent flagship project is the six-storey timber-framed One Young Street office building in downtown Kitchener, Ont. The first mass timber building of its kind in the Waterloo region, it has a loft-like brick and beam feel with exposed wood, tall ceilings and exposed fixtures and fittings.

Timmerman’s marketing materials stress the fire-resistant features of the massive wood beams (they actually exceed fire guidelines) and how wood is unique as a carbon sequestration building material.

“There is a ton of opportunity in the industry when you start relating it back to the amount of carbon that is expelled to produce steel, to produce concrete versus wood,” says Mr. Ferguson, who joined the company when it focused on commercial buildings six years ago.

Timmerman estimates that the use of mass timber in One Young Street is the equivalent of removing 373 cars from the road.

Over its more than two-decade history, Timmerman has about 150 mass timber projects in its portfolio. Until recently that was mainly developments such as recreation centres and pools. In recent years, the company has completed more than 30 projects ranging from multi-storey buildings to bridges.

While the condo landscape remains dominated by old-style concrete, steel and glass cubes, there are emerging signs that Canadians are looking for something different from developers.

Ottawa-based developer Windmill Development Group has found success with a zero-carbon approach to building with an emphasis on energy savings, design and walkable neighbourhoods.

Most of Windmill’s buildings now feature geothermal heating, which provides significant energy saving over decades, less maintenance and replacement costs, and no ugly and loud machinery on the roofs of its properties.

Those sustainable features are showcased in the company’s recently completed building at 41 Dovercourt Road in Toronto’s Queen Street West neighbourhood.

Nicknamed The Plant, the 10-storey residential and retail development was quickly sold out of its 74 condo units. It features less glass than typical condos (for energy savings), very large balconies, and minimal use of carpeting. That minimalist approach includes the use of polished concrete in common areas and the decision not to finish the units with drywall, instead opting for finishing the concrete walls and ceilings with paint.

Even the most environmentally conscious developers are finding it difficult to build without massive pours of concrete, says Alex Speigel, a partner with Windmill in its Toronto office. “Concrete is the big challenge.”

Already an environmental leader in sustainability, his company is aiming to take the next step in green construction.

“We are looking at a couple projects that we will be building out of mass timber,” he explains.

Because concrete cannot be eliminated from larger buildings, Windmill is exploring the use of lower-carbon concrete that either incorporates recycled material or uses carbon embedding technology such as that from Halifax-based CarbonCure, which allows concrete producers to inject waste carbon into concrete.

“It is a really interesting technology,” says Mr. Speigel. “We didn’t use it at The Plant, but we are looking at it for other projects.”