The building industry is one of the last large-scale “craft industries,” but it is breaking down and ripe for a big shakeup.
That’s the message from Michael Green, of MGA, a Vancouver-based architecture firm that is a pioneer in the design of tall wood buildings.
Speaking at a seminar recently at the Tall Wood Symposium in Woodbridge, Ont., Green told 200 delegates that most buildings today are built much like they were a century ago. That is contrary to the evolution of most consumer products. The automobile industry, by comparison, has made significant leaps with today’s vehicles built in high-tech controlled environments, he said at the Wood WORKS! Ontario event.
The building industry still works with "unmanageable variables that control our process" such as weather, timelines, costs, safety and job skills.
In effect, every new building built is a prototype, he said. Mass timber, however, "is a very robust, rigid panel which can be completely pre-assembled in a factory."
It is also well suited to tall wood buildings that can soar to skyscraper heights, Green said, noting his firm, in conjunction with an engineer and a European architect, did a conceptual exercise using computer modelling to show how the Empire State Building could be entirely constructed of wood.
For the building industry to make an evolutionary shift in design and construction methods, the industry’s mindset of "individual project thinking" must move to "systems thinking."
That process could start through data gathering as early as when the wood is still saplings in a forest.
Currently, there is "very little data" on building operational costs and other costs during the design phase available for conventional buildings, but new smart technologies are increasingly sophisticated, allowing building designs to be "more effective from their environmental point of view all the way through to their performance," Green told delegates.
He dismissed the idea that tall wood buildings need concrete cores — as prescribed by some engineers — because "when you mix your trades on site you slow the process down and you create complexity.
"With an all-wood building, you get consistency. You get settlement issues that are identical and you don’t get differential movement issues."
MGA designed the first tall wood building in North America, the 29.5-metre-tall Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George, B.C., which, with the exception of a concrete slab, is entirely built of wood, he said.
The architecture firm recently developed a free online educational tool for tall wood buildings called TOE (timbereducation.org). Users can take courses given by global experts teaching all aspects of tall wood, right from managing forests through to engineering, designing and construction.
Green said while "the ideas of tall wood were borne in our country," to stay at the forefront the push has to come from several sources including public policy decision-makers, development community visionaries and architects, engineers and contractors willing to be "educated in the skills of these buildings."
He told delegates the most difficult aspect to getting tall wood buildings off the ground is not the science of how to build them, but rather shifting the public’s perception of what is possible with wood.
The environmental benefits and a growing demand for affordable housing are key reasons for Green’s charge to build tall wood buildings, he said.
"You should not be a public leader (politician) talking about issues of (housing) affordability if you are not talking about tall wood," Green added.
He said that like other industries, the building industry could be revolutionized by outsiders.
The construction industry is "ready to be reinvented and there are companies coming to do it.
"It is important that we all find how we are going to be part of that future rather than resting in the past."