At FPInnovations, Canada's forestry research institute, it isn't a tall tale to map out a future where high-rises are made from a new generation of durable wood.
Employees at the forest products centre's Vancouver laboratory are putting cross-laminated timber (CLT) through a battery of tests.
FPInnovations researchers believe that Canada is poised to enter a new construction era featuring engineered wood products. The researchers support the forestry industry's goal in 2020 to build wood structures – from condos to offices – that are 10 storeys high. Eventually, a futuristic 30 storeys could even be possible for hybrid buildings that consist of mostly wood, with minor roles for concrete and steel.
But first, the institute is collecting Canadian data to support existing evidence in Europe that CLT is durable and safe to use in new six-storey wood-designed buildings. Canadian researchers are conducting an array of new studies, including structural tests that involve placing weights on lumber and seismic evaluations to gauge earthquake resistance.
Researchers have built small-scale models using their engineering knowledge to scientifically confirm that large wooden structures, including walls and floors, are safe to withstand snow loads, fierce winds and earthquakes.
"What we're doing now is putting some effort into this renaissance in wood," said Conroy Lum, the FPInnovations research leader for structural performance in advanced building systems. "We can do a much better job to use some of the newer wood technologies for taller structures."
CLT consists of multilayered wood panels, with the surfaces of each layer joined together by industrial-strength glue. The stacks of solid boards are placed perpendicular to each other.
Pioneered in Europe in the 1990s for low-rise buildings, CLT has been gaining industry acceptance in North America for six-storey structures, spurred by advances in adhesive technology and a better understanding of CLT's strength and right-angle design. In Canada, there are now two leading CLT manufacturers – Penticton, B.C.-based Structurlam and Montreal-based Nordic Engineered Wood, which has a plant at Chibougamau, Que.
"In Canada, we were kind of negligent in keeping up with the design codes for timber," Mr. Lum said. "As a result, the use of sawn timber slipped. We basically confined ourselves to using wood in residential construction and low-rises. But wood was used for nine-storey structures a century ago."
Builders of those historic buildings had access to enormous trees 100 years ago, before the ascent of steel and concrete as the main construction materials for high-rises, said Erol Karacabeyli, an FPInnovations research manager. Recognizing the importance of preserving huge old trees for the environment, he emphasized that CLT is produced with lumber from small-diameter trees.
FPInnovations is a collaborative venture that receives funding from industry and the federal and provincial governments. Among the group's partners are Natural Resources Canada while the Forest Products Association of Canada is a strong proponent of tall wood buildings.
Mr. Lum and Mr. Karacabeyli work at FPInnovations' site located on the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver, where more than 200 of FPInnovations' 550 employees are based. The other main research sites are in the Montreal suburb of Pointe-Claire and in Quebec City. Fire safety tests on CLT have been conducted in Ottawa at the National Research Council of Canada.
FPInnovations believes that its research will lead to improved manufacturing processes for CLT.
"The goal is to basically implement the research results into building codes so that more wood is used and adequately used," said Marjan Popovski, the institute's principal scientist and quality manager in Vancouver.
British Columbia has allowed wood structures as high as six storeys in residential areas since 2009, but with new Canadian standards expected in 2015 for offices and residences, the tall wood movement is gathering momentum across the country. The National Building Code of Canada is slated to be amended in 2015 to increase the limit for wood structures to six storeys for office and residential buildings, up from the current four storeys.
"Canada has become one of the global leaders in tall wood research, and the work that we're doing at FPInnovations is supporting that leadership," said Peter Lister, vice-president of forest operations and wood products at FPInnovations.
The non-profit group was created in 2007 through the merger of three national organizations that served the forestry sector – the Forest Engineering Research Institute of Canada, Forintek Canada Corp. and the Pulp and Paper Research Institute of Canada. Natural Resources Canada's Wood Fibre Centre was also added to the mix.