Tucked away on the Vancouver campus of the University of British Columbia sits a marvel of innovation in wood construction. It’s called Brock Commons, a student residence tower housing some 400 students.
Completed in 2017, it looks like any other residential tower save for the distinctive look of blond wood gleaming as the sun hits it. The unassuming building certainly doesn’t give away the fact that it’s a world first — the first 18-storey building constructed almost entirely out of wood.
“We’re quite proud of the results of the project and the lessons that we’ve learned from the project,” said John Metras, UBC ‘s associate vice president of facilities.
The building was made possible by innovations over the last decade that allow several pieces of wood to essentially be glued together under pressure to make one super strong piece of wood that can hold more weight than ever before. This new wood product is called mass timber, which is assembled and built in a factory and then brought to the construction site to be assembled like Lego.
Metras says that model allowed Brock Commons to be built at lightning speed, by construction standards. “The components really clicked together quite easily so it meant for a really quick construction. We were able to assemble the wood building envelope in 9.5 weeks,” Metras said.
Architect Michael Green is one of the foremost experts in tall wood building construction. He’s based in Vancouver but his firm is working on projects all over the world and he believes making an old material like wood new again in this way is a game changer.
“It’s very exciting because to the consumer it means better buildings, more sustainable buildings and more affordable buildings, which are essential things for our world today,” Green said.
WATCH BELOW: A Vancouver development is being built using wood damaged by pine beetles (from March 2017).
Wood is not only faster to build with, particularly in a model where these mass timber pieces are being created in factories and then shipped to the job site, but it’s also more sustainable and in the long run more cost effective.
“Without question, wood buildings will be a lot cheaper down the road than steel and concrete for a variety of reasons. One is that steel and concrete are huge energy-using materials and as energy prices continue to rise, those materials are attached to energy prices,” Green said.
He also sees wood as the answer to environmental concerns and believes more and more countries with an environmentally conscious government will turn to building with wood as a sustainable resource.
“The forests have the capacity to build our cities for sure,” Green said. “The North American forest grows enough wood every four minutes to build a 100-foot, eight-storey tall office.”
But what about safety? For decades people have been conditioned to believe that wood is flammable and therefore not as superior to concrete and steel, particularly for tall buildings. The experts say this just isn’t the case. In fact, wood building may even be safer.
“There’s actually a perception by the public that because wood burns, it’s unsafe. But that’s not true,” said Mohammad Mohammad, an engineer and researcher with the federal government’s green construction through wood program.
“Wood can burn, but it burns at a very predictive rate. Any fire protection engineer can actually calculate the charring of the wood and can design the building accordingly to be as safe as any other building and can even meet or exceed the requirements of the building code.”
Green agrees, adding that it’s the building codes that must change to reflect the fact that tall wood structures are safe and that science supports that. “Codes have to continue to evolve. They need to be based on science, not emotion.”
WATCH BELOW: B.C.-built log car for sale (January 2018)
That transformation in terms of building codes is happening in Canada already and is allowing Canada to really lead the way in building with wood.
“We have a lot to be proud of — of the national organizations and the federal government that really championed this conversation not just in Canada but globally,” Green said.
The federal government is also convinced that wood is the answer for more sustainable buildings with a smaller carbon footprint. It is offering $40 million in incentives to build with wood over the next four years.
“The government of Canada believes that increasing the use of wood in construction as a green building material in public buildings and infrastructure projects is going to actually help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support Canada’s efforts to mitigate climate change and achieve its target to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 2030,” Mohammad said.
So with Canada leading the way in terms of building codes, design and funding for future projects, the cities of the future could well feature the distinctive look of wood amid the towering glass and steel buildings already doting Canadian skylines.