Architects are touting the allure of workplaces built from wood as a way to attract talent, at a time when the desire to return to offices remains uncertain.
The aesthetics of wood offices are viewed as a recruitment tool, says Patrick Fejér, principal at B+H Architects. “Clients are recognizing the appeal of mass timber to attract tenants and end users who are seeking a social and environmentally responsible workplace.
“Mass timber not only delivers health and wellness benefits, but its amenability to organic structures and unexpected uses can prove to be a powerful ally in talent attraction and retention by making visible an organization’s identity and core values.”
Real estate investment firm Hines has made mass timber its go-to material for new office projects. It has two Timber, Transit, Technology (T3) complexes under construction in Toronto and a third in Vancouver. T3 Bayside consists of two towers in Toronto on Queen’s Quay East, and T3 Sterling Road is rising on a former brownfield in the once-industrial Junction Triangle, which is becoming a district of creative offices and studios.
High on the list of reasons for building with wood is Hines’s growing assurance that the authentic look and feel, combined with demonstrable wellness attributes, will attract employees who have been working from home, says Syl Apps, the company’s senior managing director.
The company historically developed traditional Class AA downtown office towers, but in recent years it has also specialized in timber construction, capitalizing on the migration of creative and knowledge firms to brick-and-beam spaces in up-and-coming neighbourhoods outside the cores, he explains.
“The talent they are trying to attract, such as twentysomething software engineers, didn’t want to be downtown, they wanted to be in 24/7 live/work/play neighbourhoods like King West [in Toronto].”
However, the demand for existing brick-and-beam buildings in these formerly industrial areas is outstripping supply. To create that ambience in a modern building, Hines pioneered mass-timber office building with a seven-storey project in Minneapolis in 2016, and another in Atlanta.
The projects were so well received the company now has more than a dozen other mass-timber projects in development, in the United States, Europe, China and Australia, in addition to the three in Canada.
The demand for space in the buildings has remained strong despite the past 15 months of remote working. Mr. Apps is confident workers will return to wood buildings more quickly than traditional concrete buildings. “There are a number of studies comparing timber buildings versus non-timber and they consistently show that across multiple metrics employees are happier and more productive in environments that are timber.”
The ecology-focused Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) is building its new four-storey headquarters with everything made entirely of wood, except the foundation slab.
“The building is pushing what we think buildings can do,” says Jed Braithwaite, senior project manager for TRCA. It began with employee input about what the groups said would help them do their jobs better.
TRCA wants to meet LEED Platinum standards as well as the International Well Building Institute standard, a certification of sustainability and employee health and well-being. It also wants to be carbon neutral.
“To achieve carbon zero, you almost have to build out of wood. It’s almost impossible to build out of concrete and steel to be carbon neutral today,” Mr. Braithwaite says. “One of the catch phrases for the project was ‘can we do it out of wood?’”
When vetting the architects, “we asked them how they would make it better,” he says. Uniquely, the building is being constructed entirely of wood from the floor slab on up, including the elevator core and staircases, which are generally done in concrete or metal.
Building with timber is a good expression of values and it creates an environment that people want to be in and work in, says one of the project designers, Peter Duckworth-Pilkington, principal at ZAS Architects.
“The pandemic has focused thinking on how a healthy work environment can encourage people to come to the office and feel they want to continue to be employees of the company. It used to be the boss could say, ‘Hey, you have to be in the office,’ [but] now employers have to compete by creating a more attractive environment than home. And wood projects are beautiful environments.”
Structural elements of the four-storey TRCA building are laminated spruce, with a range of other woods for finish elements, and exterior cladding of Ontario cedar.
“Not only will these materials add beauty to the building, but they will also have a certain fresh aroma that concrete buildings could never have,” Mr. Duckworth-Pilkington says.
It helps workplaces feel more natural. “Mass timber offices breathe with nature and change with the climate. And the materials are things that people relate to intuitively,” says Merritt Bucholz, principal at Bucholz McEvoy Architects, which designed the building along with ZAS Architects.
His company has done a number of timber buildings in Ireland, including for software company SAP and the Allianz Global Assistance insurance business.
The three-storey SAP building in Galway had employee retention at the top of its list of objectives, Mr. Bucholz says, adding that the employees come from many countries and everyone could relate to the natural appearance of wood.
“During the pandemic these kinds of workplaces have become a kind of refuge for people who were working remotely, and the office is a place to come and be surrounded by nature.”
He expects wood to be more readily embraced as a sustainable material for commercial projects in the future. “When reinforced concrete became a building material of choice in the 1900s, it took quite a while before it became embedded in the construction industry as the way to build,” he says. “We are just at the beginning of that kind of journey with mass-timber buildings.
“The way to convince people about wood is to simply bring them to a wood building. You don’t have to tell them because ... who doesn’t like wood? It doesn’t need a statistic, it’s just intuitive to us as humans.”