A city made of wood. In the past two years, this dream – to construct large buildings out of engineered “mass timber” – has grown outward through design magazines, conferences and the PR machine of Sidewalk Labs.
But it’s already here, and I have put my hands on its trunks of glue-laminated black spruce. I was touring a new office building at 80 Atlantic in Toronto’s Liberty Village: the five-storey, 90,000-square-foot structure is about to open for business, and it’s largely made of wood. It’s the first such building in the city in about a century. It won’t be the last.
I recently visited the place with its lead architects, Richard Witt and Michelle Xuereb of Quadrangle Architects, and developer Jeff Hull of Hullmark. I asked Mr. Witt to explain why his clients want to build in wood, and he was perplexed by the question. “Wood is lovely,” he said. “Everyone loves it. You want to put your arms around it.”
As we walked an upper-office floor, the aesthetic appeal of the timber was there in front of me: columns in the tan hue of port wine rose up from the floor, meeting knotty panels of nail-laminated timber above. A panel on each column concealed the cables and electrical chases that will make the office (for a creative agency) run. The place had a nearly sculptural purity.
But, of course, this was a business proposition for Hullmark and its partners BentallGreenOak, on behalf of Sun Life. The building began as an attempt to create “a premium product,” Mr. Hull says – one that would attract tenants through its design. “We know businesses value the architecture of the buildings they’re in,” he said. “They brand themselves through those buildings, and it gives them an advantage in the war for talent that they’re in.”
Hullmark also owns a group of brick-and-beam loft buildings in downtown Toronto – former manufacturing and warehouse space built, before 1930, out of heavy timber. These loft buildings are popular with tenants and scarce. Hullmark decided it could use more of them.
This is the main argument that’s driving mass timber construction in North America. It worked for Hullmark. The building leased quickly, Mr. Hull says; tenants include the advertising and creative agency Jackman and also Universal Music Canada, which will operate a café and public performance space on the main floor.
That’s not to say it was simple. For one thing, a glue-laminated beam can’t reach as far as a concrete slab – at least not unless you make the wood ridiculously thick. So, where a standard office building would have fewer columns spaced far apart, 80 Atlantic has a tighter grid interrupting the space. This is bad news, if you’re a landlord.
On the other hand, the columns are beautiful. And there’s a great social benefit, in that the use of wood dramatically reduces the carbon footprint of the building. This would be even lower if it weren’t for the 76-space underground parking garage – which city planning required Hullmark to build. (Why a government committed to climate change mitigation is making developers pour tons of concrete to store cars is a good question for another time.)
By using concrete for the elevator core and the first level of the building, the project skipped a lot of regulatory hurdles. And the exterior of the building is clad in glass curtain-wall and porcelain tiles. Yet, it still took an unusually long time to build.
So what about the future of wood building? There are half a dozen mass timber projects being planned in Toronto. And Sidewalk Labs, Google’s sister company, is pledging to build more than three million square feet of wood buildings, without the concrete, and at unprecedented heights. That ambitious effort would redefine the market for wood construction, but it’s encouraging to see other actors making those wood dreams solid.