Douglas Todd: B.C. surpasses the rest for mass-timber buildings

October 28, 2022

More mass-timber wooden buildings have been built in B.C. than in almost the entire United States. A total of 307 of the environmentally friendly, laminated wooden buildings have been constructed in B.C., compared to 356 in all of the U.S.

And many more mass-timber structures, some of them high-rises, are on the way for this province from its large forest industry, in part because of a three-year-old B.C. government initiative.

“For us in the government, it’s a triple-word score,” joked Ravi Kahlon, B.C.’s minister of jobs, economic recovery and innovation.

The government’s 2019 mass-timber action plan, he said, “supports B.C. jobs. But it also supports B.C. innovation. And it supports a more sustainable, clean environment.”

Wooden structures made of cross-laminated timber — which produce less carbon emissions than conventional concrete-and-steel buildings — are increasingly cited by politicians and environmentalists as a key to combatting climate change.

But while the green hype about them often outweighs the reality on the ground, the province’s three-year-old effort has at least led to scores of unique wooden projects rising up through either direct public funding or private-sector incentives.

Some are wooden high-rises, like the 12-storey Tallwood in Langford and the under-construction Capstone in Kelowna (nine storeys), the office building set for 2015 Keith Dr. in Vancouver (10 storeys), and the B.C. Institute of Technology’s new student housing (12 storeys).

A medium-rise First Nations Health Authority building is also being erected out of mass timber, as well as a supermarket in Salmon Arm, a design centre in Prince George, and a firehall in Saanich, which Kahlon called “the first mass-timber post-disaster building in the world.”

Instead of continuing to watch a large proportion of B.C. lumber exported overseas, Kahlon said, “We’re trying to add more value and create more jobs in B.C.” by encouraging mass-timber innovation.

“Governments in the past have tried to support mass timber, but have kind of stalled. We’ve taken a different approach. We’re focusing on the demand side. We’re using government procurement to bring about the change we want to see,” said Kahlon, who is also MLA for Delta North.

“So that means all student housing that we’re building, including at BCIT and in Vernon and in Victoria. We’re also looking at care homes made of mass timber, and the brand new B.C. Museum warehouse in Langford.”

The NDP government has, in addition, been offering private and not-for-profit sector companies a grant of up $500,000 each to build mass-timber buildings, which do not require vast amounts of concrete and the highly polluting cement that is needed to manufacture it.

Chatham House, a British think-tank, says the annual production of four billion tonnes of cement causes eight per cent of the world’s carbon emissions, much more than the airline industry’s two per cent.

The government’s efforts, Kahlon said, are showing how mass-timber buildings can be sustainable, effective and fire safe, while encouraging B.C. “engineering talent, architects and companies” to export their expertise to the world.

Three large B.C. companies now produce mass timber, almost entirely from second-growth forest from the Interior. They are StructureCraft Builders in Abbotsford, Kallesnikoff in Nelson, and Structurelam Mass Timber Corp. in Penticton, the latter of which is now in partnership with the giant Walmart store chain to build a new headquarters in the U.S.

The carbon-sequestering properties of wood can confer a huge environmental benefit. The Journal of Sustainable Forestry estimated that substituting wood for current construction materials would annually save 14 to 31 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

And, as Kahlon said, wooden buildings are also lighter than those made mostly of concrete, which is proving valuable in places such as the wetlands of Richmond, where the foundations of mass-timber buildings are not as likely to threaten the underground flow of water.

In addition, B.C.’s mass-timber manufacturers are making pre-fabricated buildings “with pieces like Lego,” including with robots at Intelligent City’s factory in Delta. Cutting everything to size off-site, he said, means fewer trucks running through communities, reduced noise and less waste.

B.C. has also helped combat “the myth” that mass-timber buildings are more of a fire hazard, the minister said. The government recently organized demonstration burns in B.C. and Eastern Canada, inviting fire chiefs, architects, engineers and bylaw officials to witness how mass timber burns compares to buildings made of conventional materials.

Despite cross-laminated timber technology being around for a couple of decades, such wooden buildings are still niche. The existence of three towers of 18-storeys and higher in isolated spots around the world (including at UBC) must be set against hundreds of thousands of existing concrete and steel high-rises. With many more to come, especially in Vancouver.

But so far it’s hard to fault the B.C. government for trying to do its bit to stem the concrete juggernaut. It is now possible, Kahlon said, to build a wooden tower of up to 12 storeys in the province without special zoning. “And we have a division of building code experts that can work with local governments to get approvals” for higher.

They include a 17-storey “LGBTQ community centre and residential tower” planned at 1190 Burrard in Vancouver for 2024, the 16-storey Burrard Exchange Tower planned for 2025, plus a 21-storey “M5 Prototype” apartment high-rise at 2015 Main, scheduled for 2026.

It doesn’t quite add up to a mass-timber revolution. But it is a hopeful evolution.