Canada's forestry sector is touting a new generation of high-tech lumber as a way to gain a foothold in a part of the construction industry from which it has long been shut out: condominiums.
Officials at the Forest Products Association of Canada are pushing to have building codes changed to allow for taller wood structures. Such buildings are made possible, they say, by massive wood beams made from reinforced timber that could become the main ingredient in many new condo towers.
"Our bread and butter market traditionally has been single-family homes, but the opportunities in future will be for multifamily residences," said Paul Lansbergen, a vice-president at FPAC.
The effort highlights the long-suffering industry's desire to diversify and create new demand for customized products, even as it enjoys a rebound in lumber prices and U.S. home-building activity. Condos are now driving much of the new residential construction activity in larger urban Canadian markets such as Toronto and Vancouver, and while wood won't be used to make the glass megatowers sprouting up in those cities, it could be deployed in smaller buildings up to 10 storeys, industry officials say. Rising acceptance of these engineered wood products would mean budding competition for the kingpin of construction materials – concrete.
Current national building codes cap the height of wood structures at no higher than four storeys, though British Columbia has allowed wood buildings as tall as six storeys in residential areas since 2009. A review by the Canadian Commission on Building and Fire Codes could result in changes in 2015 that would increase the limit nationally to six storeys for structures made from wood products.
"Glue-laminated products – think of big heavy sticks with large cross sections. It's not a joke," said Frank Lam, a professor at the University of British Columbia's Faculty of Forestry.
If they're well-designed, tall buildings made from engineered wood products will survive earthquakes and exceed fire safety standards, said Mr. Lam, who is an expert in wooden building design and construction.
The forestry industry's advocacy for tall wood towers, even as high as 30 storeys in the long term, has caught the attention of Cement Association of Canada, whose members currently dominate the market for condo construction.
Cement Association president Michael McSweeney said concrete is a strong and fire-proof material, and the best choice for long-lasting condo developments. "Our philosophy is build it right, build it once and build it to last," Mr. McSweeney said. "We're trying to dispel the myth that there is a silver bullet out there in other construction building materials."
While the forestry sector argues that using engineered wood is more ecologically friendly than pouring concrete, Mr. McSweeney said concrete more than holds its own as an environmentally sustainable material that proves its worth over many decades.
Vancouver architect Michael Green, who believes that engineered wood has great potential, cautioned that it would be counterproductive to pit the forestry sector against the cement industry. There is room for both sides to participate in the condo craze, he said.
"There is a new kid on the block," Mr. Green said. "There is a desire to gain a competitive advantage, but this isn't about us against them. There is a place for concrete buildings and a place for wood buildings. The cement association is protecting its own economic interests."
People need to think well beyond wood-frame construction of single-family houses and instead imagine a new generation of huge-scale wood products that are much thicker and more durable than anything traditionally used in the past, he added. "There are new ideas for how to construct new buildings from wood. With engineering, creativity, research, testing and science, incredible minds put together make for great new changes in society," Mr. Green said.