Walk past a construction site in cities across Canada and the chances are better than ever you’ll see workers and cranes hoisting giant mass timber beams into place.
Mass timber is turning into a mass movement. Once considered mostly an experimental construction technology, the use of glued, laminated wood beams (called glulam) is taking hold in the design and construction of larger, commercial, industrial and institutional buildings.
“Ontario is taking to mass timber in a big way,” says Patrick Chouinard, vice-president, market strategy and communications at Element5, which designs timber projects and has a 137,000-square-foot factory in St. Thomas, Ont. The factory provides glulam and cross-laminated wood used for walls, floors and floor separation.
Many Northern Ontario towns have had lumber mills close over the last few decades and encouraging investment in this new construction technology could help revitalize a key industry.— Mike Yorke, president, Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario
“We’re seeing it happen more and more. Contractors are now asking us: ‘Are you sure you have enough people to do the work [with mass timber]?’ " says Mike Yorke, president of the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario, the union representing more than 30,000 workers across the province.
“We’re looking at as many as 12 mass timber projects running in Toronto right now, and others in the Greater Toronto Area and other cities,” he says. Mass timber is not only good for carpenters, Mr. Yorke notes, it’s also good for the environment and for reducing carbon emissions.
By the end of last year, the federal government’s State of Mass Timber in Canada report noted that there were already nearly 500 mass timber projects across the country, with 412 completed, 52 under construction and another 12 planned.
They range from prominent projects such as the 251,000-square-foot T3 Bayside office building going up at Toronto’s Waterfront to another project by the same firm in Toronto’s West End called T3 Sterling Road. The first phases of both projects are expected to open next summer, and another mass timber project by the developer, Hines, is getting under way in Vancouver.
“We built our first mass timber building in Minneapolis in 2016 and up to then, no one had built anything of this size [with this material] for 100 years,” says Syl Apps, senior managing director of Hines’s Toronto office.
Hines has been focusing on mass timber construction for two reasons, Mr. Apps says.
“One is that people like to work in those brick-and-beam buildings with lots of wood, but the old industrial buildings don’t perform well as offices,” he explains. “They’re hard to heat and cool and often have bad acoustics.”
The second reason is sustainability, he says. Mass timber is carbon neutral, while concrete produces up to 8 per cent of human-made greenhouse gas emissions. Each of the two T3 buildings offset the equivalent of 17,200 tonnes of carbon emissions that would go into a conventional concrete and steel office building, he says.
Mass timber also supports Canada’s forestry industry, including Indigenous-owned mills. “Ontario and our forests are at the centre of the eastern North American market for producing and supplying mass timber products, and we source our lumber from two Northern Ontario mills that are part owned by Indigenous groups,” Mr. Chouinard says. Element5 located its factory in St. Thomas because of easy transportation access to both Canadian and U.S. building projects, he adds.
“Many Northern Ontario towns have had lumber mills close over the last few decades and encouraging investment in this new construction technology could help revitalize a key industry,” Mr. Yorke says.
Canada’s national building code now approves laminated wood-beam buildings of up to 12 storeys. Smaller mass timber projects include two new firefighting stations in Welland, Ont. And yes, mass timber has been fire-tested extensively.
The two new Welland buildings are the city’s fire and emergency headquarters, built with glulam beams, and a replacement fire station that uses a combination of steel and wood trusses for support.
Thanks to intensive research and testing, the perception that wood is unsafe for tall structures has been disproved by mass timber, the federal mass timber report says.
Mass timber works not only for multistorey office buildings; it can also be deployed in marquee projects such as stadiums. Mr. Yorke has called for the city of Toronto to encourage the owners of BMO Field, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, to give the city’s main soccer stadium a mass timber treatment as it prepares to expand its seating capacity.
(Toronto has been chosen as one of the host cities for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, conditional on expanding BMO Field from its current seating capacity of about 30,000 to at least 45,000 seats.)
“By constructing this extension through mass timber technology, Toronto can show the world that we are committed to being a global leader in sustainability,” Mr. Yorke says.
Ottawa’s TD Place stadium, where the Canadian Football League’s Redblacks play, includes a curvy 84-foot- glulam veil (25.5-metre) that shelters fans and shimmers over the nearby Rideau Canal. A British soccer team, Forest Green Rovers, is building a mass timber stadium in Stroud, England, and university stadiums in Quebec City and Montreal already include some mass timber features.
Mr. Apps and Mr. Yorke agree that one of the big efforts currently under way is to educate and train more designers and tradespeople in mass timber. The technology is advancing quickly, Mr. Apps says, and Mr. Yorke says that, while many carpentry skills are transferable to mass timber, others require special training.
“We’re partnering with engineers and suppliers to put together a four-week mass timber program. You’re working with massive beams and panels that weigh thousands of pounds, so you have to know what you’re doing,” Mr. Yorke says.
“It’s a challenge to build a community of experts. Most architects and engineers are educated in concrete and steel,” he says. “When you’re designing a mass timber building, rather than just adopting a concrete and steel plan, you need to design it that way from the get-go.”