While building treehouses as a boy in the 1970s, Great Gulf president Christopher Wein felt a kinship with wood that has endured throughout his lifetime. Now his passion for timber is helping the company drive green innovations in construction technology – making working with wood safe, sustainable, fast and more affordable for homebuyers.
"Growing up around Orillia, we always lived in rural areas where we could play in the forests," says Mr. Wein, who learned carpentry skills at a young age from his dad, Dennis. "Wood gave me a very human connection to nature. There's something magical about it. The way it feels when you rub your hand along it, the way it smells, how it's beautiful just to look at – I wanted to bring that magic to building techniques that really improve quality."
People are noticing.
Great Gulf received two Ontario Wood WORKS! Awards last year in Toronto – the Environmental Building Award and the Wood Champion Award. The awards program honours individuals and organizations that advance the use of wood in all types of construction through design excellence, advocacy and innovation.
Why are we seeing a trend toward wood construction in Ontario now?
Homebuyers' tastes are leaning toward the use of more natural materials, inside and out, along with a desire for a smaller carbon footprint. Building codes have changed to accommodate the use of more wood. And as technology allows wood to be increasingly engineered for better safety and durability, it spurs innovations in both design and construction, Mr. Wein says.
"Wood technology is progressing at a rapid rate," he says. "With engineered wood products and new technology including cross-laminated timber, the performance of wood is enhanced."
Cross-laminated timber is an engineered wood panel with layers of lumber oriented at right angles and glued to form panels that have exceptional strength, dimensional stability and rigidity. In fact, everything from wood panels to structural elements is engineered today, so that there is very little wood used in its original state in construction.
"The environmental awards that Great Gulf has won acknowledge the team's highly process-driven approach to conscious home building," Mr. Wein says. "The company's advanced indoor automated manufacturing plant allows wall and floor assemblies to be built as integrated panels in a controlled environment for low-rise and mid-rise projects – resulting in on-time delivery and precision detailing."
Construction visualization, prototyping and fabricating technologies reduce environmental waste and increase energy performance through the manufacture of building components, Mr. Wein says. The result is durable, precision-built homes and buildings that are constructed quickly and efficiently.
At Great Gulf's Trafalgar Landing project in Oakville, modern townhomes in the uptown core are created with the signature H+ME Technology process, which relies on 3D modelling software to virtually construct and deconstruct each aspect of the building's design – before a single board is cut.
"New technology allows us to use wood in new and exciting ways," Mr. Wein says. "We have a team of people doing research and development into larger wood structures, such as six-storey wood condo buildings, so that we can build advanced, high-quality wood buildings with great design appeal. If we can build faster with Canadian-based materials, we should be able to create more affordability for people."
The Great Gulf Active House in Thorold, Ont., is the first smart house of its kind in Canada – and its innovative structural wood and wall system was key in its selection for the environmental building award presented last year.
The collaboration that included Toronto-based architecture firm superkül, H+ME Technology and the European-based Active House Alliance (comprised of scientists, architects, engineers and building manufacturers in 50 countries) resulted in a spectacular 3,200-square-foot, two-storey brick and cedar building.
Designers opted for H+ME Technology's wood-frame "panelization" – the process of using factory-built wood panels for the frame that took just a week to assemble on site. w
Wood is increasingly being recognized as the greenest and most energy-efficient building material, says Mr. Wein. It has a low-carbon footprint that is sustainable, replaceable and it is a renewable resource in Canada. While the Great Gulf Active House may be the face of the future, we don't have to look far into the past to see that wood wasn't always favoured.
As companies began to construct large buildings on premium land in the 20th century, non-flammable materials such as concrete and steel became more popular. Among concerns about using wood for the construction of larger buildings, which take longer to build, was timber sitting on sites that could be compromised by weather and present a fire hazard.
Wood became limited primarily to single-family homes and townhouses.
Now, wood is seeing a resurgence as the ideal material for framing mid-rise building in Ontario. Its use was previously limited to building four storeys, but Ontario Building Code changes in early 2015 allowed for up to six storeys, spurring new projects in Toronto.
Quick assembly of engineered wood materials by Great Gulf and other forward-looking companies is making wood more acceptable and desirable. Designers and builders are creating innovative and affordable mixed-used buildings with the potential side benefits of relieving sprawl while meeting Ontario's fire-safety standards.
Toronto developer Shane Baghai says luxury buyers love wood because it brings an organic, time-honoured and natural charm to any interior finish.
"Today's consumers demand environmentally responsible materials," Mr. Baghai says. "Wood provides the durability, versatility and variety that today's consumers, designers and builders look for. It is renewable, reusable and recyclable – exactly what our engineers and environmentalists turn to in the study of life-cycle analysis and the embodied value of construction materials."
Reclaimed and restored wood will be featured in a Great Gulf downtown Toronto condo project to be located at Yonge and Cumberland, named Eight Cumberland.
"We plan to retain heritage storefront elements and restore interiors, so there will be a juxtaposition of modern materials that we use in a high rise with the majestic nature of wood," Mr. Wein says.
Wood is both a bridge to Mr. Wein's past and a way into the future of building advanced habitats. "There is a certain warmth and enduring quality to wood," he says. "Its aging process, like a fine wine, is part of its charm."
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.