In Canada, our building industry has come a long way in terms of sustainable mass timber harvesting, manufacturing, design and construction — especially in B.C. But the truth remains that we’re still just scratching the surface of our full potential.
Mass timber development has started to gain traction in Canada. We’re seeing growing demand for more sustainable construction materials and methods and our ability to meet demand as a development community is becoming more sophisticated and focused.
The importance of accelerating the transition of this part of our building industry is clear. The building sector contributes between 30-40% of global annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. By using products such as Cross Laminated Timber (CLT), mass timber buildings can reduce the environmental impact of construction through carbon sequestration and lower greenhouse gas emissions compared to those built with concrete and steel.
Mass timber creates strong, and energy-efficient structures that are just as sturdy and fire-resistant as concrete. There is an increasing understanding of what mass timber is, and the benefits it provides to building more sustainability while enhancing the livability for its residents and tenants. However, there is still plenty of work to be done, knowledge to be shared and excellence to be realized across the residential and commercial sectors.
Building code restrictions present challenges
Currently, the federal National Building Code only allows mass timber construction up to 12 storeys, whereas concrete developments can be significantly taller. As a result, this limitation makes it tough for developers and builders to specialize in mass timber buildings and to develop cost efficiencies and sustainable proformas. A lack of boldness or eagerness in building codes is limiting opportunities to build large, marquee mass timber buildings that can be used to showcase excellence and generate momentum.
Municipal land zoning also creates obstacles for taller mass timber development. In B.C., there has been progress with building codes, but that growth has been blunted by zoning decisions that handcuff mass timber builders.
For example, many municipalities in B.C. have upped their building regulations to allow for mass timber structures up to 12 storeys. That’s great, but there is very little land zoned specifically for that kind of residential building height. Instead, developers face land options zoned for up to six storeys, or 20-storeys+. Without available, appropriately-zoned land, the building code allowances provide little opportunity for commercially viable mass timber buildings.
New projects demonstrate mass timber opportunities
Despite these obstacles, there have been many recent advancements and opportunities in mass timber projects. The new MEC flagship store in Vancouver, B.C. demonstrates how companies that value sustainability can use mass timber to create eco-friendly spaces. The MEC store features exposed CLT, invoking the feelings of being in nature within the store.
Limberlost Place, currently under construction at George Brown College in Toronto, and Brock Commons at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver are additional great examples of institutional mass timber projects that expose mass timber to a wider audience.
Brock Commons also demonstrates how combining mass timber with concrete can be used to overcome the height limitations of wood to create hybrid buildings that are more sustainable than a concrete building of similar height. As these buildings are part of institutions that educate the next generation, they demonstrate how construction can be used to address climate change.
There are other envelope-pushing projects on the horizon, including Canadian architecture firm DIALOG’s proposed prototype for a net-zero hybrid mass timber tower that could climb to 105 storeys when built in cities around the world, showcasing the future potential for super tall timber on a global scale.
Sharing knowledge and lessons key factor for growth
As more Canadians see, visit, understand and experience mass timber projects and innovation, there will be more opportunities for developers across Canada to learn about mass timber and embrace more environmentally sustainable building materials and methods.
Developers across Canada can also look to B.C. on how wood can be harvested sustainably from second and third-growth forests to ensure it’s protected as a plentiful and renewable resource. B.C. has worked hard to become a leader in sustainable forest management, helping to transform the province into a hub for sustainable construction and design.
As we look towards increasing sustainable construction in Canada, furthering mass timber education and tackling obstacles hindering mass timber projects will be key to furthering the growth and adoption of mass timber development.
Sarah Bingham is the Director of Development & Sustainability at Adera Development Corporation