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Renderings of the YWCA building in Kitchener, Ont., a home for women experiencing homelessness.Edge Architects

Gargantuan wood panels manufactured in a new factory will click together to become a four-storey residence with 41 units of affordable housing. Nobody in Ontario has tried this before. Still, the team at work on a project for the Kitchener-Waterloo YWCA insist the structure will snap into shape with ease, like Lego.

Duncan Bourke, director of engineering for Element5, the Toronto-based company set to make and assemble the building components, likens it to a giant Lego set. The assembly is similarly straightforward. “My son is doing the 200-piece Lego sets pretty quickly.”

A better analogy might be to IKEA. Trucks plunk the wood panels on the building site, a crane lifts them into position and workers attach them, using steel plates, bolts and very long wood screws.

“The devil is in the details,” admits Mr. Bourke, who learned the tall wood building trade in B.C. and in Australia. “It all comes down to being able to fit together quickly and easily on site. All you need is an impact driver and a nail gun. It comes with a full set of instructions.” (The manual, presumably, will be thicker than that word-free booklet Ikea supplies with, say, its Hemnes dresser.)

Momentum is growing across Canada to build tall-wood structures, a sustainable alternative to steel or concrete. Up until now architects have chosen cross-laminated timber – layers of lumber glued together to make reinforced panels for walls and floors – to make daring statements, such as the Fort McMurray International Airport or the 18-storey Brock Commons student residence erected in 2017 at the University of British Columbia (both built from wood panels made in B.C.).

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A crane lifting a panel of Cross Laminated Timber (CLT).Element5

The YWCA building in Kitchener, a home for women experiencing homelessness, may mark one of the first times a mass timber building won an open bidding process, in part because it was cheaper.

There is something paradoxical about this equation. With house prices soaring and everyone, it seems, renovating during the pandemic, lumber prices have hit record highs. How can mass timber be competitive?

For one thing, the price of concrete and steel is rising, too. More fundamentally, this bid won because proponents say they can build more quickly with mass timber. The federal government, which will pay for the structure with $6.9-million through its Rapid Housing Initiative, insists on occupancy by Christmas.

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The YWCA project consortium is composed of Edge Architects for design, Element5 and general contractors Melloul Blamey.Edge Architects

Patrick Chouinard, founder and new business manager at Element5, said the project makes sense thanks to the company’s forest partners and its automated production facility.

“The stereotypical perception is that mass timber is more expensive,” Mr. Chouinard said. “That may have been the case when we had to bring in components from Europe or B.C. Now that we are vertically integrated and all the raw materials come from Ontario forests, and we are shipping our products within Ontario, we have been able to reduce prices so we are competitive with concrete or steel.”

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The YWCA Kitchener building will embody plenty of firsts.Edge Architects

Connecting all this innovation is a venerable figure in Ontario’s forest sector, Frank Dottori. Member of the Order of Canada and founder of the former Canadian forestry giant, Tembec, Mr. Dottori, now in his 80s, is a self-confessed workaholic. He currently acts as president at White River Forest Products, about 1,000 kilometres northwest of Toronto. Sky-high lumber prices have poured money into Mr. Dottori’s pockets; he has invested some of it in Element5.

“The prices of timber are just crazy,” Mr. Dottori says. “I have never seen anything like it in my life. It’s the highest price since God was born. We are enjoying it.”

Mr. Dottori notes that the lumber business is cyclical: when prices rise, investors open new mills and the market stabilizes. “It looks good for three to five years,” he said. “You are going to see some significant investments and the wood prices are going to drop.”

Along with price fluctuations, forest companies face criticism from environmental groups and sometime First Nations. Mr. Dottori has sought to get ahead of those challenges. For this structure the Maygwayyawk Forestry Service, a First-Nations owned company, and other loggers will harvest black spruce trees in the White River Forest on Crown land. White River Forest Products, co-owned by the Netamisakomic Anishinabec (formerly Pic Mobert First Nation) will mill the timber into lumber.

The YWCA building will embody plenty of firsts. The spruce cut in White River will travel to the $50-million Element5 plant, which opened in St. Thomas, Ont. in December after a $5-million investment from the province of Ontario. There, using equipment imported from Slovenia, workers will finger-joint and epoxy 2-inch-by-6-inch boards into lengths of up to 16 metres. The machines then gather these lengths together, spray on white glue from Texas, and lay the next layer of boards at a right angle. The press can make panels up to nine layers thick.

Chris Latour, vice-president of manufacturing engineering for Element5, feels confident.

“We gathered together an eclectic group of very smart people,” says Mr. Latour, whose own background includes several years automating a cake-baking plant in London, Ont.

Edge Archictects, a member of the project consortium with Element5, which is is fabricating and assembling the building, and general contractors Melloul Blamey, has never built a mass timber structure. “There’s a lot of conservatism in the construction industry,” said Matt Bolen, Edge principle and project architect for the YWCA build. He compared it favourably to precast concrete buildings Edge has designed. The wood members are lighter while also being much bigger. “It goes together very easily,” he said.

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Some of the forest land that makes up the 'wood basket' managed by White River Forest Products.Craig Heinrich/Craig Heinrich

Vulnerable women in Kitchener-Waterloo, tied with Halifax as the fastest-growing place in Canada, urgently need the new building, said Elizabeth Clarke, chief executive at the region’s YWCA. The City of Kitchener has provided a 50-year lease to the YWCA for $1 on city land valued at $2-million, and the Waterloo Regional Council approved a $650,000 grant for the project.

“The ability to erect housing that is desperately needed in half the time that traditional construction takes is the most important component,” Ms. Clarke said. “And the timber gives a warm look that is very inviting.”

Assembling mass timber is a skill with which Canadians may need practice. Still, Mr. Dottori notes that growing trees, at least, is a job with which he and others have experience.

“We replant lots of trees in spring and summer,” he said. “If you cut a tree, you gotta plant at least one – it guarantees sustainability.”

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