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A@W Newsletter

Timber comes to the Masses

8 September 2020

For the Distillery District in Toronto, SHoP Architects has proposed an oval-shaped structure made entirely of mass timber.



In 2013, Vancouver architect Michael Green gave a TED Talk titled Why We Should Build Wooden Skyscrapers. When it was released, the impression it left with many of his colleagues was: Great idea, but it’ll never catch on. Yet, less than a decade later, Green’s greener vision of cross-laminated timber (CLT) as the great catalyst for building sustainably, and on a macro-scale, has been on a perpetual climb upward with mass-timber buildings on the rise around the globe.


Vancouver architect Michael Green has helped popularize mass timber. He spoke at ARCHITECT@WORK Canada in 2017

CLT’s invention goes back to the 1990s when it was first used in Austria and Germany, initially for single-family home construction. Its attributes, as a structural material that is light and natural, gained traction with architects looking for new ways to build sustainably. Its strength compelled engineers to consider its potential for building taller. Since then, dozens of “plyscrapers” – either made entirely of engineered wood or a hybrid variation that employs some concrete and steel – have risen, each aiming to be the first, tallest or greenest. Mjøsa Tower, by Voll Arkitekter of Norway and located two hours north of Olso, currently holds the title of world’s tallest at 18 storeys.


Standing 85.4 metres, Norway’s Mjøsa Tower is currently the tallest wooden structure in the world

Almost every major Canadian city now has its own timber-built showpiece with many more planned or underway. Established firms coast to coast are also beefing up their expertise to secure a competitive edge in engineered-wood construction. Developers, looking for novel ways to make their projects stand out, recognize greener buildings can also pay off. Arbora Condominiums, in Montreal’s Griffintown, is among the first such developments: a newly finished complex comprised of 430 multi-family units. Its most significant selling point is the all-wood construction, a combination of CLT and GLT (glulam-laminated timber) post-and-beam components that have been left exposed where ever possible both inside and out.


Arbora Condominiums in Montreal, completed earlier this year, use CLT and GLT fabricated from the boreal forests of northern Quebec

Green’s firm MGA has just completed two sites destined to become iconic symbols for mass timber’s meteoric rise: a three-building complex that houses Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, a new learning environment devoted to a holistic study of forest sciences. The other is the Catalyst Building in Spokane, Washington, which aims to meet Net Zero and Zero Carbon standards and become one of North America’s most sustainable buildings.


Rendering for the Oregon State University’s College of Forestry. The school extends the study to forestry to include the entire ecosystem. Rendering courtesy MGA


Without question, mass timber is appealing on so many levels, even viscerally, where our collective imaginations envision trees standing in for our desire to reconnect with nature, and wood as a symbol for a renewable resource that seems as though it is just waiting to help us fix climate change. Yet some studies suggest there is not enough analysis to determine if building with wood is indeed all that much better. While using mass timber can significantly reduce the construction industry’s CO₂ emissions, that only remains true while buildings remain intact. As soon as wood decays, stored CO₂ is released. In other words, mass timber only works as a significant carbon crusher if the end of building’s life is recycled. For that to happen, entire wood- and construction-related industries will have to change, too.


Where mass timber gains its edge is in a multitude of other pluses. The accelerated speed when using prefabricated components means buildings can go up efficiently and affordably. Reduced construction site debris and noise appeals to city councillors and neighbourhood associations. There is also the biophilic allure. It is scientifically proven that just breathing in the scent of raw wood can reduce stress and improve well-being.


80 Atlanta in Toronto took advantage of new building codes that allow timber commercial buildings to rise six stories. Doublespace Photography



The idea of towers, one day, being energy self-sufficient, bio-diverse and off-grid is already happening, and at a faster pace than predicted. As Michael Green predicted, mass timber construction is playing a significant role in that bright future. Now the question is: can it happen fast enough to turn the tide on climate change?


Timber comes to the Masses
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