Reaching New Heights with Wood

By Chantal Hunter

A construction project underway in Vancouver, British Columbia, aims to showcase the practicality and environmental benefits of using wood in tall buildings.

Since 1941, the height of wooden buildings has been limited in Canada. In fact, most multi-family residential and office buildings over four storeys tall have been built using primarily concrete and steel.

But recent changes to building codes, coupled with the development of engineered wood products and innovative new technologies, have led designers and builders to consider wood as a more environmentally-friendly and cost-effective alternative for tall buildings.

Tall Wood Building Demonstration Project

With funding received from Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and other partners, a tall wood building demonstration project is underway at the University of British Columbia (UBC). The goal is to showcase the benefits of using innovative wood-based products and systems in tall building applications.

Located in Vancouver, the new UBC residence is eighteen storeys high, making it the tallest modern mass timber building on the planet. Set to open in September 2017, the residence will house over 400 students in 272 studios and 33 four-bedroom units, and feature both study and social gathering spaces.

“Increasing the number of tall wood buildings in Canada is an economic growth opportunity,” says Robert Jones, Director of Industry and Trade Division with NRCan’s Canadian Forest Service. “This project will help demonstrate safe, commercially-viable and innovative wood building options for high-rise construction.”

Benefits of Building with Wood

Research funded by NRCan has shown that safe buildings with more than six storeys can be constructed using mass timber such as cross laminated timber (CLT).

CLT, a new generation of engineered wood products, is made of layers of timber glued together using hydraulic or vacuum presses. It is strong enough to support a multi-storey structure, but is considerably lighter than other traditional construction materials.

Being lighter in weight means that CLT panels are easier and more economical to transport and install than traditional building materials.

Building with wood also offers several environmental advantages. For example, a wood structure is just as strong as one constructed from other materials, but it requires less energy to heat and cool and stores more carbon, making wood construction an environmentally-friendly choice for builders, developers and occupants.

Wood: A Safe Building Option

Recent studies have shown that buildings constructed using mass timber are slow to burn in part due to the inherent fire resistance of the thick, solid panels. Mass timbers char on the outside at a predictable rate while protecting and insulating the structural wood underneath.

Wood has also shown excellent safety performance in testing under earthquake-like conditions.  The adaptability and seismic stability of wood frame buildings make them a highly suitable construction choice for earthquake-prone regions.

Technical Guide for Tall Wood Buildings

To support the development of more tall wood buildings, FPInnovations, with funding from NRCan, led the creation of a peer-reviewed Technical Guide for the Design and Construction of Tall Wood Buildings in Canada, which provides architects, engineers, builders, building officials and other stakeholders with detailed technical information.

“Facilitating the construction of tall wood buildings in Canada is a key element in the ongoing transformation of Canada’s forestry industry,” says John Kozij, Director General, Canadian Forest Service. “This project will help showcase the practicality and environmental benefits of using wood in the construction of taller buildings.”

For more information, visit the Natural Resources Canada Web site.

To read related articles, see forest industry.