There could soon be a rise – literally – in wooden residential buildings across British Columbia as a result of a decision by Premier John Horgan’s government to tweak regulations in the provincial building code to allow taller mass timber towers of up to 12 storeys.
The changes, announced in March, will put B.C. ahead of the National Building Code, making it the first province in Canada to allow construction of wood residences to such a height.
The consensus is that the move will spur builders and architects to consider mass timber for their projects, resulting in an increase in business for manufacturers of the engineered product.
“The changes to the provincial building code will result in more use of mass wood in residential buildings simply because the changes open up a portion of building typology that previously prohibited the use of wood,” explained Russell Acton, a partner in Acton Ostry Architects Inc. in Vancouver, which designed Brock Commons, an innovative mass-timber hybrid building at the University of British Columbia, which is the world’s tallest wooden building.
“There’s been quite a bit of interest lately and I expect that might pick up once the changes come into effect.”
Building tall structures with wood is a practice that’s been gaining popularity in the building trades industry. The federal 2020 National Building Code is expected to allow mass timber construction up to 12 storeys, but B.C. is getting ahead of the curve.
The biggest hindrance to mass timber construction in the past has been the fear that tall wooden structures are a fire hazard. However, the wood industry has changed over the years and a new product called mass timber has been developed which is fire-resistant. It is manufactured in a factory and then brought to the construction site to be assembled like Lego. Several pieces of wood are glued together under pressure, creating a super-strong engineered plank that can hold more weight.
Acton said mass wood manufacturers are already busy and once the law is changed suppliers will be under pressure to keep up.
“It is my understanding that existing mass wood fabricators are in the process of expanding and modernizing their facilities in response to increased demand for CLT (cross laminated timber) and glulam (glued-laminated timber) that will continue to increase over time.”
Indeed, timber manufacturer Structurlam Mass Timber Corp. of Penticton is already preparing for more orders.
“We will absolutely see more business,” said Stephen Tolnai, vice-president of sales and marketing, construction products at Structurlam. “As land values go up in the big centres of B.C., buildings are going taller, and if they can use mass timber as one of the mediums with no more difficulty than concrete and steel, they will use it.”
Structurlam, whose current owners are the Kingfish Group, has been investing in equipment to handle the expected increase in orders and is planning to expand.
The manufacturer is already booked solid with orders from Adera, which has already built a number of projects using CLT panels, one being a six-storey condo and townhouse development at University of British Columbia’s Westbrook Village.
Last year, the company, in recognition that the market was growing, spent money on a second Computer Numerical Control (CNC) robot to cut CLT panels.
“We now have two CNC robots so we’ve shown the market that we’ve spent millions of dollars to incrementally increase our CLT capacity to meet the needs of the growing market need,” said Tolnai.
Structurlam will be spending more money this year to increase its CLT and glulam capacities to meet the anticipated market needs, he said.
The changes proposed by the provincial government are exciting for the company, noted Tolnai, as
“the owner and the consultants will need to jump over less hurdles to use that product.”
Mass wood is a good alternative to steel and concrete, he said, because the panels of a structure are manufactured off-site and test-fitted in the factory before being shipped on-site.
“We build the building on-screen first, with its structural components, and then we tie that in with the steel and concrete, virtually, and then we release that building to production and our facilities produce that and our robots cut each individual component as per the instructions,” he explained.
“Then we deliver the building in the order it’s required on the site.”
According to both Tolnai and Action, there are many advantages to using wood in a tall structure, one being that the joint separations are tight and the lines are also more plumb and not as irregular as steel and concrete, which makes it easier for the subtrades to work on a building.
While a project might take more time at the front end with detailing and co-ordination, it reduces actual construction time on-site, said Acton. Mass wood panels and pieces are also fitted to within two millimetres tolerance, so it makes life easier on the building subtrades.
Wood construction is also less noisy on-site, said Acton, as there isn’t a steady stream of concrete trucks coming and going, and the building gets enclosed quicker during construction so trades aren’t exposed to the environment and therefore work in a cleaner environment.
Acton said he has a few other projects in the design stage that may potentially use mass wood. He is presently working with Moriyama & Teshima Architects on a design for The Arbour, a mass timber building that will serve as an educational hub for George Brown College on the waterfront in Toronto, Ont. The 12-storey, $95-million 16,250-square-metre building is expected to be started in 2021 and will be Ontario’s first tall wood institutional building.
The use of wood in construction was essentially forgotten about for many years, said Tolnai of Structurlam, but in the last decade or so it has gained in popularity because of its efficiency.
“You’re getting a just-in-time experience for a unique structure that can be repeatable or a one-off and you’re saving huge. The pre-fabrication part of the mass timber revolution speaks for itself while being better for the planet. Is there anything else to say? That’s black and white.”