Peter Busby, the architect best known for a long and storied career of sustainable design, sits in the boardroom of his firm’s downtown Vancouver office across from developer Bruce Langereis, where they discuss their vision to build the world’s largest wood tower.
They propose a 35- or 40-storey, mixed-use tower that would be a major feat – and not just a feat of wood technology, or convincing consumers to move beyond their appetite for concrete construction. If it passes the lengthy rezoning process, it would dwarf the neighbouring buildings of Burrard Slopes, between Kitsilano to the west and South Granville to the east.
Mr. Langereis is usually excited about his projects, but this collaboration with Mr. Busby to build the world’s tallest wood tower and North America’s greenest has him talking about revolutionizing his own industry, which has been complicit in contributing to climate change. Mr. Busby is global design principal at Perkins + Will in Vancouver, which has offices around the world.
“I share this because I think it’s profound,” Mr. Langereis says. “I have been visiting a local river here for 15 years and it’s been a gold mine for sport fly fishing, catch and release. And I’ve watched the river in 10 to 15 years go from this mecca to ‘what happened?’ Things are changing. I see it before my very eyes. And through working with Perkins + Will and the team and Peter, I’ve realized we [developers] are bad people. The developers are a big part of the problem.”
Mr. Langereis, a former amateur freestyle skiing champion, has been in the real estate and development industry for more than 25 years. He is president of Delta Land Development, which added a 48-storey tower onto the Georgia Hotel heritage building that included an $18-million penthouse. The company has also developed several towers in Coal Harbour. He has never marketed his condos to offshore buyers, he says, and he’s not about to start.
About four years ago, Delta Land purchased an old concrete bank operations centre, which looks like a bunker on half a city block, at 1745 W. 8th Avenue at Pine Street.
“I don’t think a lot of us realize that almost 40 per cent of the annual carbon [emissions] is based on construction and operation,” he continues. “I came to these guys and I went to my investor group and said, ‘We have got to change.’ I’m not going to be here forever developing buildings – I’m 60-years-old now. What I realized over time is that we were having an impact.”
Mr. Langereis says when he approached Mr. Busby and his team they were initially taken aback.
“I walked in and said, ‘My goals are simple: I want to make sure I have a functional and economically viable building. But other than that, you have no limitation. You guys can lead and guide me as long as you do this in parameters that make sense and are not foolish and somebody wants it.'”
They came up with a plan to build “Canada’s Earth Tower,” which would have 170 market units and some more affordable units, such as co-op housing. It would be made out of as much engineered wood as possible, with only a concrete core and minimal amount of drywall.
“It’s the tallest we think we can technically make with wood today,” Mr. Busby says. “We believe we can go somewhere between 35 and 40 storeys.”
They plan to take energy standards to an unprecedented level, with a rigorously high passive house envelope of about a foot-thick to reduce energy consumption. The building will mostly be made out of cross-laminated timbers (CLT) and dowel laminated timbers (DLT), manufactured in B.C. and culled from damaged trees.
“We want a zero carbon building in operation,” Mr. Busby says.
Their building would be a testament to the potential of wood construction, which fits nicely with B.C. Premier John Horgan’s recent announcement to support the emerging engineered wood industry. The plan would not only help replace highly unsustainable concrete in construction (responsible for an estimated eight per cent of all carbon emissions worldwide), but generate local jobs. The province also announced plans to support the national building code to allow for wood building construction up to 12 storeys. For a building to go higher than the code for mass timber, a peer review process that proves the project meets the intent of the code is currently required.
If given the green light, Mr. Busby says the technology is there to go much higher than 12 storeys. New advancements have made timber structures as strong as concrete and fire retardant. It’s the same principle as throwing a log onto a campfire. It won’t burn because the carbon associated with combustion forms a layer which stops the fire, Mr. Busby says.
“It will self-extinguish. That’s the methodology of doing tall-wood construction. You don’t cover it with fire protection; you add an extra three-quarter inch in all dimensions. That’s the sacrificial layer.”
Although several developers are building low- and mid-rise wood construction, the wood tower has been slow to evolve. When asked why the development community has resisted, Mr. Langereis says it’s a matter of building what you know.
“I think a lot of it is there isn’t an awareness of what the impact is, and you’re just a creature of habit. You are a machine,” he says of developers. “And frankly speaking, there hasn’t been policy or incentive to try to change your behaviour.”
Mr. Busby interjects: “Generally speaking, developers are conservative people. They are playing with tens of millions of dollars. They have a bank backstopping them. They are not going to go out on a limb. They are going to do what they know, and they will do it again and again because they made money last time.”
Adds Mr. Langereis: “They are okay at jumping through hoops but they are not smashing boards.”
The building will offer 20 per cent affordable housing, although Mr. Langereis concedes that “affordable” is a relative term. The proposition is an expensive one – Mr. Langereis says it will cost “tens of millions more than a conventional concrete structure. And there are other hurdles.
There is a belief that concrete construction is superior, which is still a public relations battle for wood construction.
“It’s a risk I am prepared to take,” Mr. Langereis says. “There are 150 [market] units [in the building] and I believe there are 150 Tesla buyers out there that will buy this.”
To make it viable, he says he’d prefer not to charge a premium, but not everyone who wants green is willing to pay for it, he adds.
Mr. Busby adds that he might be one of them.
“I am a candidate to live in this building. I can sell my west side house and pay a premium because I want to live carbon free.”
To get costs down is a matter of mainstreaming wood construction and making it part of the competitive developer-driven landscape, Mr. Busby says.
“The way costs come down is he is the pioneer, he gets one built, the city says to all the other developers, ‘If he can do it, you can do it, so get on with it.’ Then costs will come down.”
The other potential hurdle is the current zoning only allows for buildings of about 14 storeys. The tower would stand out among a sea of low-rise and mid-rise buildings.
“Right now this looks taller but eventually there is going to be density along Broadway transit, and this is meant to fit into what we forecast is going to be more typical for height there,” he says.
They are in early discussions with the city and have yet to submit an application for rezoning. They say city staff have reacted positively so far, but there is a long way to go in terms of feedback from the public and the city approvals process.
Sean Pander, an engineer and planner, is the city’s Green Building program manager, and he says Vancouver leads the way in a lot of wood innovation design and engineering. He contributed to a new Climate Emergency Report that includes a target to reduce “embodied” emissions to do with the construction of buildings by 40 per cent by 2030. The report went to council on April 24.
“That leads us to one of the most important strategies moving forward, which will be to encourage and get out of the way of mass-timber construction,” Mr. Pander says. “These big leadership projects that come forward that can fit, they take some risks, but they help shape [the industry]. The more you start making it, the more you start using it, and the faster those costs come down for those products.”
That said, the 35- to 40-storey height would be a bigger obstacle than the wood construction, Mr. Pander says. Zoning, neighbourhood fit and affordability are major considerations for the city too.
“The biggest challenge for a project of exceptional height is how does it fit with the broader neighbourhood? The Broadway corridor is a really important corridor in the city, and we are embarking on what the community and the neighbours want in that neighbourhood,” Mr. Pander says. “Sustainability and low carbon is a city-wide priority, so any application for a project like that is great, it needs to look at that, but also the neighbourhood fit and affordability piece has to be there. That’s the single biggest challenge.”
The design includes a series of unique three-storey communal greenhouse spaces, where residents can grow fruit trees, tend to bees, and where sunlight is harvested for passive solar energy. World-renowned landscape architect Cornelia Oberlander, a force at the age of 97 who designed the interior garden for the New York Times building in Manhattan, has signed on to design the gardens. The lower levels will be devoted to office and retail space. Other than the extremely low-carbon goal, the tower and podium design is typical of new projects located around transit, Mr. Langereis says
However, if the public process vetoes it, they will find a Plan B. He suggested a massive block of five-storey buildings that would form canyons, which he says is far less appealing.
Later, in an e-mail, he said he’d be “disappointed” if their tower project didn’t pass, though, “as our goal is to demonstrate that traditional tower-base forms that we are accustomed to can be built in a low-carbon manner.”
Several other proposals for very tall wood-construction towers have been announced – for instance, the 80-storey Oakwood Tower in London and the 70-storey W350 Tower in Tokyo, but neither project is close to receiving planning approval and the Tokyo tower has a more or less fanciful completion date of 2041. The University of British Columbia’s 53-metre, 18-storey Brock Commons Tallwood House, a hybrid of wood and concrete, was, until March of this year, considered the world’s tallest timber building. However, the 84-metre-high Mjøstårnet tower in Brumunddal, Norway now holds that distinction, as verified by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.