More architects and developers around the world are rallying for mass timber instead of concrete and steel, persuaded by its proven success and environmental benefits.
Now, the B.C. government is joining the movement by investing in eight mass timber buildings and four research projects. It also declared that every new civic building will be made mostly of mass timber, starting with Vancouver’s new St. Paul’s Hospital and the new Royal BC Museum in Victoria.
“We think this is our triple-word score,” says Ravi Kahlon, Minister of Jobs, Economic Recovery and Innovation. The fund can create jobs in both forestry and product manufacturing as well as in design and construction, “while ensuring that a climate-change lens is placed on how we construct buildings.”
The $4.2-million investment supports projects that highlight the versatility of mass timber – the umbrella term for exceedingly strong, glued-together wood building components, such as panels and beams.
The buildings include a 21-storey rental building in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, by Westbank Corp., “that will be one of the tallest wood buildings in the world,” Mr. Khalon says. There is also an office building, by BentallGreenOak, in Vancouver’s False Creek area, that rises 10 storeys using no hybrid components of steel or concrete. Again, a first of its kind in North America.
“All the demonstration projects go into territory that hasn’t been explored with mass timber,” says Mr. Kahlon, adding that best building practices of all the projects will be shared to promote learning and further advance mass timber use.
The funded research projects will examine international building codes, fire resistance, construction costs and carbon emission benefits. The studies will attempt to quantify the claims of wood building proponents that techno-ecological advances have led to more affordable tall wood buildings that are safer and significantly less energy-intensive to produce than steel and concrete.
One of the demonstration projects, a luxury residence in West Vancouver, developed by Delta Land Group with architects Perkins + Will, offers a double helping of carbon benefits. The eight-storey building is set to be Canada’s first mass timber mid-rise to be built to passive house standards. When complete, its airtight walls, high-performance windows and solar panels will dramatically reduce the energy required for heating and cooling.
Bruce Langereis, president of Vancouver-based Delta Land, says the project is “as good as it gets” when it comes to ecofriendly buildings. “Lowering the carbon footprint when you build a building is one thing; lowering the carbon consumption while operating the building is another. So, if you put the two together, I don’t know how you can do it better.”
Mr. Langereis sees the government’s investment in the demonstration buildings – each of which received about $500,000 – as “a catalyst for action” to develop an industry “that’s just waiting to happen,” he says. “It should be applauded.”
If mass timber has a starchitect, it’s Michael Green, whose Vancouver-based Michael Green Architects firm has completed 18 mass timber buildings in cities across North America. Mr. Green is a member of the B.C. government’s new advisory council, established to oversee the demonstration projects. The council has additionally been given the task of creating an action plan to build demand for mass timber and further establish B.C. as the place the world looks to for forest product innovation.
None of the demonstration projects will include Mr. Green, “which is kind of super cool,” he says. “I’ve promoted this globally for a long time. To get to a point where there are all these projects that I’m not even part of – it’s actually wonderful news: It speaks to the universality of the conversation today.”
Timber fire station
Of the eight funded projects, Mr. Green is especially excited about the mass timber fire station to be built on Vancouver Island, in District of Saanich.
Heated discussions have flared about how mass timber handles fire. And yet, there’s a great deal of evidence to suggest mass timber is safer in a fire than steel or concrete, thanks to the way wood chars, according to the Canadian Wood Council.
“Building a firehall out of mass timber is really important,” Mr. Green says. “It’s not a big, complicated building, but when you build it out of mass timber, you’re literally saying, fire professionals understand how these wood buildings behave in fire.”
Mr. Green also finds Vancouver-based developers Westbank’s market rental tower of particular interest – and not entirely because of its record-breaking height. “Here’s a developer, that’s one of our best, Westbank, and they’re always building with concrete. And now, they’re finally ready to [build with] wood. That’s showing the tide turning at the top. It says to other developers, ‘this is a real thing; we need to get in the mix.’”
Mr. Green sees a future when mass timber “reshapes our skylines with beautiful buildings.”
B.C. city skylines already reveal 65 showcase wood buildings, as mass timber has early roots here. In Vancouver, the 18-storey Brock Commons, at the University of British Columbia, was the tallest “plyscraper” in the world when it was completed in 2017. The student residence highlights choice qualities of mass timber buildings.
It was built with trees harvested from B.C.’s sustainably managed forests. Its cross-laminated timber is strong as steel yet lightweight and hence, less prone to damage during earthquakes. And owing to off-site production of the prefabricated elements, and virtual construction modelling, it was erected in a mere 70 days – a process that contributed little to on-site traffic, pollution and noise. Besides all that, the positive impact of exposed wood on inhabitants’ well-being is supported by a proliferation of recent studies.
Mr. Green has designed much taller buildings planned for Europe and the United States. This week, his firm MGA announced it’s designing two mass timber towers for Google’s massive new campus in San Jose, Calif.
“Google has all the money in the world to make any choice it wants,” Mr. Green says. It chose wood, he adds, “for its showcase project, and that speaks volumes to the rest of the world about what’s happening in mass timber. Progressive companies are making positive decisions for the future of the planet.”