Over the past few years, Canada has seen a rise in the use of timber as a construction material for large-scale building projects. Just a decade ago, many viewed timber as a poor alternative to more traditional materials like concrete and steel. Wood, they claimed, was not structurally reliable or fire-resistant enough. There was also, understandably, an unwillingness to let go of the status quo.
As President of the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario (CDCO), I have watched with excitement as those arguments have been proven wrong and attitudes have begun to change. This shift has largely taken place thanks to a better understanding of mass timber and its new applications. Not only can wood construction match the structural benefits of its heavier and often costlier counterparts, but there are a number of other considerations which make it attractive as a building material.
When I learned that Sidewalk Labs intended to make extensive use of tall timber in their Quayside development proposal, I was especially thrilled that our city, province and country had an opportunity to be part of this evolution in construction.
Canada has been leading the charge in mass timber for some time now. In 2017, the University of British Columbia finished building Brock Commons, a student residence which was the first 18-storey building in the world to be constructed almost entirely from wood. Closer to home, the University of Toronto is planning a 14-storey tower made of timber for its downtown campus. These two projects, like many others across the country and around the world, have been spearheaded by architects, builders and engineers who understand the potential of timber construction.
What makes the Quayside proposal so exciting are the economic opportunities presented by an entire neighborhood constructed in mass timber. By building at such a scale and emphasizing mass timber, Sidewalk Labs have the opportunity to prove how the material can outperform on multiple fronts and at neighborhood-scale. It’s estimated that by using the material, construction project timelines can be shortened by 35 per cent. That means less hassle, less cost and less delay. Mass timber is also easier to manufacture than steel, especially in Toronto where the price of steel and rebar for concrete construction has risen significantly over the past few years and as a result of more recent trade tariffs.
Environmentally, mass timber is hugely appealing as it captures carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it as concrete and steel do. It’s estimated that the use of mass timber for Brock Commons in Vancouver captured, 1,753 tonnes of carbon and prevented emissions of 679
tonnes. That is roughly equivalent to 500 cars taken off the road for a full year-just imagine the impact of an entire neighborhood built with sustainable timber.
Toronto has the potential to build the world’s first neighbourhood made entirely out of this incredible material-and the economic benefits would go well beyond Quayside. The project would revitalize Canada’s timber manufacturing sector, which has lagged behind other countries’, despite our abundance of certified forests. Sidewalk Labs has said it would financially support a mass timber factory which could jump-start a sustainable timber industry in Ontario and create 2,500 jobs over 20 years. These opportunities could bring jobs and technology to northern Ontario, both of which could be especially crucial for young people and Indigenous communities in the region.
This development can contribute to an important linkage between Toronto/GTA and Northern Ontario communities. As CDCO president I hear weekly of closed down mills, the need for economic development and the lack of jobs and a diverse economy.
A mass timber manufacturing initiative can meet a number of needs such as construction products needed in the GTA, a link to proper forest management, high-end manufacturing and bonds with research/design at colleges and universities in the North.
Last fall I had the opportunity to witness this opportunity being played out in real time. As part of a Canadian Wood Council tour of the mass timber sector in Austria and Trentino, Italy we visited numerous towns & small cities where prosperity was being driven by investments in mass timber and supplying the Euro/global construction industry with the timber products they demand.
Manufacturing, design, research and numerous subsidiary industries were all linked to the mass timber sector and all were contributing to the global leadership of the Sud Tirol in Austria and the Trentino Region of Italy.
Why can’t Ontario look at that as a benchmark to emulate and develop our own diverse mass timber sector?
In my decades of experience in carpentry, I’ve seen a lot of new opportunities for our economy and our future, but none in my view have had the same potential as mass timber. It’s time for Toronto and Canada to seize that potential and show the world then impact it can have. I strongly believe that Sidewalk Labs’ proposal for Quayside is the strongest way to do just that.
Mike Yorke, President CDCO,
Director, Public Affairs and Innovation