Developer Ian Gillespie of Westbank wants to make mass timber tower construction a standard rather than a novelty, starting with a 21-storey residential rental tower in Vancouver on the northwest corner of Main and 5th Avenue. He purchased the site as part of a campus of buildings that are under way, called Main Alley.
It’s a collaboration with Ryan Holmes, the chairman and co-founder of Vancouver social-media management company Hootsuite, envisioned as a hub for tech jobs within walking distance of the future SkyTrain station at Main and Broadway.
Mr. Gillespie is confident that the wood tower, under review as part of the City’s Broadway Plan, will get the thumbs up because it offers sustainable construction and zero emissions operation, it is transit oriented, and it offers 216 units of rental housing on top of one floor of commercial space. The site at 2015 Main St., is zoned light industrial and allows a maximum height of 18.3 metres or 60 feet. As well, it does not currently allow residential use. However, once the Broadway Plan is completed, there may be changes to the land use policy and zoning, the City said in an e-mail.
Mr. Gillespie and Henriquez Partners Architects hope that the plan will be complete by the end of the year, at which point they will apply for development and building permits so they can start construction early in 2022. Mr. Gillespie said that they are partnering with BC Housing on the project.
“If you aren’t excited about affordable rental with zero carbon footprint next to all the job formation happening in that neighbourhood – on a major arterial with a new transit line – you know what, if we’re not doing that, then let’s give it up,” Mr. Gillespie says.
He’s doubling down on mass timber with a cross-laminated timber (CLT) manufacturing plant so that he can add to the supply chain. He’s got the property for the plant but he said he’s not yet able to disclose the details. For the Main Street tower, called Prototype, he’s secured a manufacturer to supply the CLT that will go into a specially designed hybrid structure built from mass timber and conventional materials. The true sustainability piece will be in the zero emissions operation of the building, partly due to its tie-in with his Creative Energy system next door, in the renovated brick building called M3.
Mass timber is a priority for the B.C. government, which sees its manufacture as a potential economic driver, and has created a new Mass Timber Demonstration Program worth $3-million. Westbank is one of several program recipients and will receive $500,000 toward construction of the tower. BC Housing will partner to provide affordable housing, says Mr. Gillespie, who also has major developments underway in Seattle and Silicon Valley.
In 2015, Mr. Gillespsie and Mr. Holmes formed a corporation and purchased the block between Main and Quebec and Fourth and Fifth avenues for $40.5 million. The idea for the new zoning was to enhance digital and tech jobs, with community amenities, such as affordable housing. Mr. Gillespie says it’s essential that housing is built alongside the tech hub.
“Here is where I came into this: I was asked by some folks within government who said, ‘Ian, what can you do to innovate in mass timber?’ Because the reality is, we’ve been talking about mass timber for a dozen-years-plus in B.C., and we have one and a half buildings built,” Mr. Gillespie says. “You’ve got some low-rise stuff, but in terms of mid-rise to high-rise built mass timber buildings, you have the University of B.C. [Brock Commons Tallwood House] and Prince George [Wood Innovation and Design Centre]. But in that same period that we built one and a half buildings, they build hundreds in Germany and Australia, and yet look where all the fibre is.
“While this is all going on, we are shutting down a dozen-plus sawmills across the province. So we’ve got a forestry industry in distress, you’ve got climate change becoming a crisis, and you’ve got B.C. unable to innovatively transition from conventional construction to mass timber. There’s the problem.”
Mr. Gillespie says he has the solution, which is to build as many hybrid buildings as possible, with zero operational emissions.
“We are saying we would rather build a hybrid that takes 50 per cent of the conventional structure and turns that into mass timber and get 100 of those built, than make it 100 per cent pure mass timber and get none of them built. To me, that’s the bottom line here,” he says.
“Some people in the industry say, ‘but you could make the core out of wood and the columns out of wood.’ Well, absolutely you could, but show me those buildings. All this talk should be about getting carbon out of the atmosphere. Meanwhile, you are fiddling while Rome is burning, literally.”
Adera Development is a pioneer in wood construction and is part owner of a mass timber manufacturing company. In 2018, the local company built its first mass timber project, called Virtuoso, at University of B.C. Virtuoso was built with about 160 CLT panels per floor, prefabricated off-site. Adera is now building the first CLT townhomes in the province, as part of its Duet project in Coquitlam, B.C. The developer is also about to begin construction on a purpose-built mass timber rental tower.
Because mass timber products are a premium material, they tend to get used more often in condo or office development. But Rocky Sethi, Adera’s chief operating officer, says the numbers can work with a purpose-built rental if the building is designed for wood from the get-go, since panels are precision-cut and factory-made using design software. As for high-rises built entirely from wood, he says that’s a far more ambitious goal for most developers.
“I would like to see a proliferation of [wood] towers that are in that 12-[storey] to 18-storey range. There is room for taller towers, but the expertise is not there yet. Even abroad, where you’ve got decades of experience with mass timber, there are only a handful of towers past 20 floors. They will come. They are great as demo projects and to push people’s thinking.”
Westbank’s Prototype will be a slender tower situated on what is currently a sunken parking lot.
In late 2016, city council approved the creation of new zones for specific parts of the Mount Pleasant Industrial Area to allow for taller buildings east of Quebec Street between E. 2nd Avenue to the north and E. 6th Avenue to the south. Within that area, at 123 E. 6th Avenue, global American real estate firm Hines has partnered with local developer PCUrban to build T3, the tallest wood office tower in Western Canada, which is also under review. If approved, it would be scheduled for completion in 2024 and although nothing is final, Hines is aiming for a 10-storey building. A heritage school on the site would be refurbished and leased back to the City as artist studios, in exchange for more density. According to the City, the site would provide job space for a potential 500 jobs in the tech industry.
The City leased the city-owned land to the developer for 102 years with an option for renewal.
“We take a long-term view on cities we want to be in,” said Syl Apps, managing director for Hines Canada.
New to the Vancouver market, the company has announced another project on West Pender. They are counting on the growth of Vancouver’s jobs market, and aim to supply office space that looks old-world with brick and wood beams, but performs like a state-of-the-art modern building. A desirable work atmosphere for a young tech sector will be key in a post-COVID market.
“We have got a very strong belief in Vancouver, as a city, and in the kind of mid and long term, and we do expect that as we get into a post COVID environment … that high quality, highly amenitized buildings in high quality neighbourhoods … will continue to attract companies that are looking to attract and retain talent.”
Your house is your most valuable asset. We have a weekly Real Estate newsletter to help you stay on top of news on the housing market, mortgages, the latest closings and more. Sign up today.