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Shifting toward mass timber in mid-rise development, addressing a housing need

Sarah Bingham, director of development and sustainability at Adera Developments. (Courtesy Adera Developments)

According to the City of Vancouver’s 2021 Housing Report filed in 2022, the city needs approximately 86,000 homes to address its current housing needs, with another 50,000 homes needed in the next decade to account for the influx in population. Other cities surrounding Vancouver are in a similar situation.

In Vancouver, which ranks 16th on the list of cities with the most high-rises in the world, much of the multi-family housing is within concrete towers. In transit-oriented areas like Coquitlam, the City is seeing a shift toward density, with 83 per cent of new dwelling units in high-rise apartment developments, while low-rise apartment buildings and townhomes account for a total of 15 per cent. In the Fraser Valley, the opposite can be seen, with the majority of units being detached single-family homes.

Carefully integrating mass timber in mid-rise projects is a sustainable option developers can explore to help create solutions to Metro Vancouver’s ongoing housing crisis.

The ‘missing middle’ in Metro Vancouver

Geographical limitations and zoning challenges in the city of Vancouver contribute to a strain on the land available for redevelopment. What is now defined as the ‘missing middle’ need for housing has come to the forefront.

On Feb. 1, the City of Vancouver announced a request for public input on a proposal to allow more missing middle housing types, allowing multiplexes with up to six units per lot in low-density residential neighbourhoods across the city.

This follows a Housing Needs Report released by the City in April 2022. “A decades-long shortfall in rental and non-market housing construction and limited ground-oriented ‘Missing Middle’ options in Vancouver suggest the need for significant scaling up of these housing types, both to accommodate needs of a growing population and to address an achievable portion of the backlog of existing needs,” the report states.

Although the missing middle is not specific to one region, Vancouver displays an obvious gap in mid-rise buildings (between four and 12 storeys) when weighed against cities like Burnaby and Coquitlam. There is a spectrum of housing typologies, and needs differ for homebuyers. However, without sufficient supply and housing type options, people are left without a choice. Mass timber can improve housing supply levels with mid-rise projects and concurrently reduce environmental harm.

Mid-rise development is a more sustainable solution

British Columbia’s National Building Code 2020 proposed, “provisions for the construction of encapsulated mass timber buildings up to 12 storeys in height.” This change in the National Building Code permits twice as much height using mass timber. Buildings constructed using traditional wood framing may not exceed six storeys, which historically required buildings over that height to be constructed with concrete, a less sustainable material.

Currently, the tallest mass timber building in Vancouver, and the tallest in the world when it reached completion in 2016, is the University of British Columbia's Brock Commons, an 18-storey tower.

The use of mass timber for mid-rise development is a more sustainable option than concrete. Mass timber buildings are typically lighter than their concrete counterparts, reducing foundation requirements. It also enables local developers to work with manufacturing partners that source wood from local, sustainably managed forests, promoting a local supply chain loop.

Buildings constructed with mass timber further reduce their environmental toll with fewer delivery trucks required than a similar concrete building. It’s critical that developers work with partners dedicated to reforestation and the sustainable management of forest habitats.

Homebuyers and communities benefit from sustainable development

The benefits of mass timber construction are often twofold, for the communities within which projects using cross-laminated timber are erected and, later, for the buyers who invest in homes within a mass timber project.

One of the biggest challenges presented by any new project is its impact on the community. Developers building in residential neighbourhoods often encounter construction fatigue, noise complaints, and parking concerns — all aspects that impact neighbours.

Building with mass timber diminishes, and in some cases, eliminates these challenges. We have witnessed this at Adera Development (Adera), with fewer neighbour complaints about noise and traffic since we began building with mass timber. Another advantage to mass timber mid-rise development featuring exposed wood is biophilic design. Research has found exposure to wood and elements of the natural environment is beneficial for health and well-being.

Mass timber development has progressed and seen success in Portland, and Toronto is currently seeing a boom in mass timber construction.

In B.C., the City of Victoria released a Missing Middle Housing Initiative to combat the housing crisis. Time will show if an incentive to allow new zoning regulations could be modelled in other municipalities. Mid-rise developments are built as transitional connections between towers and single-family homes.

Picking up the development pace with mass timber mid-rise communities presents benefits for the economy and prospective homebuyers; still, it must be actioned with a sustainable perspective to work.

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