Skip to main content

When the Canadians had finished erecting their wooden roof, the curious Chinese engineers gathered to watch. They were convinced it was going to collapse.

The stacked rows of ordinary two-by-six Douglas fir lumber from British Columbia, held together with bolts and glue, covered the library of a Canadian demonstration home in Shanghai. But it was a load-bearing roof, holding up the second floor of the 888-square-metre house without any support pillars -- and that's what the Chinese design-institute engineers were refusing to believe.

To the surprise of the Chinese, however, the roof held. It was another small victory for Canadian lobbyists in China in their campaign to sell the merits of Canadian wood.

Chinese builders are normally skeptical of wood construction -- they consider it flimsy and vulnerable to fire and rot -- and are more comfortable with traditional "brick box" construction. But the rapid rise of China's free-spending middle class, with its taste for Western fashions, is creating a booming new market for Canadian wood -- not just wood-frame houses but also wooden furniture, doors, window frames, panelling and other products.

Two years ago, China was the 12th-largest importer of Canadian wood. Today it is the fourth-biggest, and this year it is expected to surpass Britain to become the third-largest importer, behind only the United States and Japan.

Most of the new, wood-frame houses in China are built with Canadian wood. Yet even after the dramatic growth in its popularity here, the Canadian industry is barely scratching the surface. China still accounts for only about $80-million of Canada's annual $40-billion in wood and pulp exports. Up to 1,500 wood-frame houses are built in China every year, but this is a tiny percentage of the country's 10 million annual housing starts.

"China is a huge potential market," said Mike Hogan, head of the Shanghai office of the B.C. government agency that built the Shanghai demonstration home -- known as the "B.C. Dream Home," although it also houses the local offices of the Quebec and Canadian industry groups.

Since the home's opening in January, Mr. Hogan has been aggressively using it to promote the Canadian wood industry. He struck deals with a Chinese television company to use the Canadian home as the main setting for a 20-part dramatic series, and with an international fashion model contest to have the home as the venue for its press launch.

He is even trying to tackle the "three little pigs" syndrome. In their childhood, most Chinese learned the story of the three pigs and the wolf who blew down their wooden house. Oddly enough, this children's story is one reason for the Chinese misconception that wood houses are flimsy. So Mr. Hogan's team has written a new version of the tale, with a fourth little pig who built a house of Canadian wood -- and saw it survive the wolf and even an earthquake.

At the same time, the Canadians have had to indulge some of China's prejudices against wood products. "Wood is difficult for the Chinese to accept as a safe material, so we use a mixture of construction materials in our houses," Mr. Hogan said.

The biggest challenge is to train Chinese builders in wood technology, so that their houses won't succumb to fire or rot. Canadians are training the Chinese to use drywall, for example, to fireproof the wood-frame houses.

They have achieved some successes. The Jin Qiao group, one of the biggest developers in Shanghai's fast-growing Pudong district, has already built 130 villas with Canadian wood-frame materials, and now it plans to build another 200.

"The Canadian material and construction style is an improvement over our styles," said Chen Guoqing, deputy manager of Jin Qiao's building department.

"We're not just introducing wood, but also North American architectural features, which are also attractive to our customers."

Mr. Chen, who visited British Columbia last year to study its wood industry, acknowledged that many Chinese home buyers still have misconceptions about wood construction. "But as time passes, these ideas disappear," he said in an interview. "People will gradually accept it. Our customers find that wood is more human in scale."

The Canadian lobbyists are also emphasizing the energy efficiency of wood-frame houses. With China facing an energy shortage over the past year, Beijing is ordering an increase in energy efficiency, and the wood industry could benefit.

For the vast majority of China's population, however, wood-frame houses will always be too expensive. A bigger potential market is the retrofitting of Chinese apartments to include wooden walls, trusses or pitched roofs.

City planners in Shanghai are already planning to renovate older apartment blocks to add Internet cables and improve the insulation, electrical wiring and plumbing. Wooden walls, which add only a few centimetres to an existing concrete wall, are seen as the ideal solution.

In one district of Shanghai alone, officials are planning apartment renovations that would add up to four million square metres of new roofing and eight million square metres of kitchens, bathrooms and internal walls. If the Canadians can grab even a small fraction of this, it could be a significant new market.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe