While I don’t give tours of post-industrial Scarborough, on the few occasions I’ve driven past the intersection of Eglinton Ave. E. and Thermos Rd. with a passenger, I’ve pulled over and waxed poetic about the enormous, namesake factory that once produced insulated food and drink containers (demolished 2008) and the “Golden Mile” in general, and the myriad products once manufactured along this storied strip.
One could do that while passing Heintzman St. in the Junction … and in just about every other city and town in Canada.
The point is, things used to be made here.
And while we can warm our patriotic hearts that specialized things such as architecture are ‘made’ here, most buildings are assembled with parts from all over. But not George Brown College’s Limberlost Place.
“Made-In-Canada … with all of the mass timber components sourced nationally” and “the team … is made up entirely of Canadian talent” trumpets an in-house, limited-run publication profiling the 10-storey, mass timber building designed by Moriyama & Teshima and Acton Ostry Architects now rising in the East Bayfront neighbourhood.
And not only will Limberlost Place – named for donor Jack Cockwell’s Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve near Huntsville – be fully Canadian, it is blazing trails and setting precedents as the country’s tallest institutional wood frame building.
So, naturally, I had to see it for myself.
“This is the largest glulam column in North America, maybe the world,” said Phil Silverstein, a principal at Moriyama & Teshima, as a dozen hard-hatted heads, including mine, swivelled up. “It’s 1,725 millimetres by 630 millimetres [and] three stories tall, and there’re very few fabricators in the world that can make one of these; the wood is all from northern Quebec.
“A little bit bigger and the crane wouldn’t be able to lift that.”
Looking at a construction site from across the street is one thing; standing directly underneath a chunk of structural wood that could crush you like an ant is quite another. It’s exhilarating, with oohs and ahhs spilling often from the lips of those assembled on this mild January day.
In addition to Mr. Silverstein, our group is escorted by Carol Phillips of Moriyama & Teshima, PCL construction manager Brian Fowler, and, from George Brown College, project director Nerys Rau along with former Toronto city councillor Joe Cressy, now six months on the job as the school’s senior vice president of external relations. An equal amount of awe comes from that cohort as well, since the 200,000 sq. ft. building checks so many other impressive boxes: it’ll be net-zero emissions; cooling will be provided from the city’s deep lake water cooling system (DLWC), which the Washington Post reports is the “world’s largest”; solar chimneys will regulate temperature with natural ventilation; and solar panels on the roof will generate 24 per cent of its energy needs.
But, like the time I toured the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the ROM while still an angular steel skeleton, it’s the bones of Limberlost that are the star right now – except here they won’t be covered up before occupancy.
“This robust structural material is going to be the finished material,” confirmed Ms. Phillips. “This will be exposed to view … we have oversized all of our structure for char, which means that the structural integrity is actually within here,” she touched the massive column for emphasis, “so if there is ever [a fire], that char would form around the building like a big log that puts itself out in the campfire.”
And although wind is whistling through those beams today – as well as a few lazy snowflakes – it’s still possible to get a sense of the open/inspirational spaces and the cozy/contemplative spaces as well. From the airy, light-filled, three-storey tall “Learning Landscape” area, where it’s envisioned that even the general public might come for lunchtime lectures, to, a few floors up, intimate study areas or sheltering corridors with views of ‘floating’ wood-clad staircases, there is a gentle rhythm to the building. It’s easy to move through, logical even, and, with so many natural materials, soothing (the city did insist the core be made of steel beams). Even from the street, the aluminum cladding – wood is not allowed due to the building code – in “Copper Penny” by Contract Glazers in Windsor, Ont., exudes a warmth and serenity absent on most buildings.
Of course, once Limberlost Place is teeming with architecture students, computer technology students, the future-focused folk at Brookfield Sustainability Institute on the top floor, and a bunch of laughing children on the ground floor, it may take a little longer to sooth the soul.
“We’re opening a non-profit child care facility here,” said Mr. Cressy as we walked the area, which will feature a wall that looks like a forest. “It’s always [about] how do you not only build a building, but build a neighbourhood; it brings entry into the building, so suddenly your building isn’t just for people to work or study.”
No doubt Toronto’s neighbourhoods will see more mass timber buildings of all stripes in the decades to come. While the uptick was slow after the National Building Code of Canada allowed for six storeys in 2015, when the allowable limit was raised to 12 in 2020, applications increased considerably.
“Probably the biggest tool we have in the sustainability tool kit is to change culture, to change expectations, to change the way students and people who occupy buildings come to expect their environments to be,” finishes Ms. Phillips.
Limberlost is already succeeding. Which means, in the far, far future when it’s gone, architecture buffs will pull over and tell their companions about what once made history here.