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Condo industry embracing the growth of wood frame construction

Heartwood is an all-wood-framed low-rise condominium planned for 1884 Queen St. E.

Quadrangle Architects

Viewed from the outside, the six-storey luxury condominium complex slated to go up at 1884 Queen Street East will look more or less like any other well-tailored small development in a contemporary style. Its modestly grey fibre-cement cladding will likely help the building blend into the conservative Beaches neighbourhood round about. Heartwood, as this project is called, won't be calling attention to just how special it is. In fact, what makes it special will be almost completely hidden from sight.

Designed by Quadrangle Architects for Fieldgate Urban (with Hullmark Developments), this structure will be one of the first wood-framed multiunit residences to rise in Hogtown since the province allowed such construction (up to six storeys) last January.

There are sound reasons why we haven't seen tall buildings with wooden bones in more than a century. The devastation wrought by Victorian and Edwardian fires made municipal officials leery of wood-framed hotels and tenements taller than four storeys – the height that could be reached by the long ladders of emergency trucks, it is said. The recently soaring cost of steel and concrete has sent developers and their designers in search of an alternative. It has arrived in the marketplace in the form of the sturdy, relatively inexpensive forest product known as cross-laminated timber (CLT), which Quadrangle will use for Heartwood.

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CLT has its opponents, among them manufacturers of steel and cement concrete who stand to see their output marginalized to some degree.

But the stuff has also inspired dreamers.

Last year, in the northern British Columbia town of Prince George, the provincial government opened its six-storey, timber-framed Wood Innovation and Design Centre, intended to demonstrate the viability of using forest products to do the job of heavy lifting monopolized, until now, by steel and concrete. Also from Canada's west, we've heard news that Vancouver architect Michael Green (a key student and promoter of new wood applications) has unveiled a scheme for a 30-storey tower held aloft by a timber skeleton.

Mr. Green is convinced that raising a safe, large building of this kind in Vancouver is now possible, given advances in the fabrication of very strong wooden structural members. And he believes that doing so is also ecologically desirable: Trees, at least in Canada, are almost infinitely renewable resources.

And CLT is on the minds of international designers. This fact was confirmed a couple of years ago by the three principals in the Toronto-based office of Williamson Chong Architects (WCA), winners of the Canada Council's Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture, who spent their $50,000 prize on trips to Europe and Asia, scouting out what leading-edge researchers, manufacturers and designers abroad are doing with wood.

"It's what people are talking about right now," WCA's Shane Williamson told me on the eve of the young practice's travels. "[CLT] is produced in manufacturing plants with great precision. You end up with a fairly extraordinary system that can produce the equivalent of homogenous wood panels at tremendous scales. … Manufacturing may be away from a building site. … What's [also] very interesting about CLT is that it is a material with a much lower embedded energy, a smaller carbon footprint, than concrete, and you also get a much lighter system." Lighter, he added, in every way: "in terms of thinking about the environment … in terms of material structure."

With the launch of Heartwood, the use of CLT framing in six-storey construction is entrenched in Toronto's mid-rise residential market, and we can expect to see the system put to work in numerous similarly scaled condo projects in the future.

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If I hesitate to cheer for this structural advance – which is surely desirable for all the reasons its fans put forward – it's because CLT framing doesn't really lend itself to artistic invention of the fresh sort cities need nowadays. The system appears to resist curving and bending and formal jogging or syncopation – the imaginative design moves, in other words, that contemporary digital modelling encourages and that steel makes possible. Be that as it may, the exterior of Heartwood is uninspired – which is disappointing in a structure that otherwise embodies a welcome innovation in the building craft.

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