Mass timber is big news

Wood-frame construction reaches new heights.

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Cities are sometimes called “concrete jungles.” It’s a term that gives rise to images of grim towers and windswept streets. Urban planners have long fought against the concept. They design for people by creating green spaces and walkable neighbourhoods among other things. That concept is at the heart of new urbanism, which seeks to make cities work for their citizens.

These efforts are getting a boost from new technology. Mass-timber building uses wood in structural elements that have long been cast in concrete. The Alberta government recently allowed residential wood-frame condos and apartment building up to 12 storeys tall. The previous limit was six storeys.

Ingrained Strength   

One of the most popular forms of mass-timber construction uses cross-laminated timber. This surprisingly strong material is created by gluing wood panels together. The key is to glue the pieces together so that the direction of the wood grain alternates. This cross-lamination creates strength.

It’s a technology that has captured the imagination of architects and builders alike. In Chicago, there is a proposal for an 80-storey timber tower. It shows the material is a viable alternative to building with concrete and steel. It also means the 18-storey residence building at the University of British Columbia won’t be the world’s tallest timber building much longer.

Mass-timber construction also has a smaller environmental footprint. Cutting, milling and gluing the wood uses less fossil fuel than producing and transporting concrete. And the wood itself is a form of carbon storage. Using it to build means this carbon capture can be locked in.

Wood has other advantages as well. Wood-frame buildings are lighter, making them ideal for sites that would not support a heavier concrete building. Then there is the visual appeal. In most mass-timber structures, the wood is visible. It offers a striking design element as well as critical support. Many developers are finding multi-family wood-frame buildings easier to rent out. Tenants like the look and also the environmental benefits of the buildings. Developers also like the fact that mass-timber structures are quicker to build.    
A Calgary Example

The advent of taller wood-frame buildings put pressure on building codes. They have to updates so people can be certain these new structures are safe. That is the final piece that allows for this type of construction to take off. A prime example in Calgary is a project proposed for a prominent corner in Inglewood. The building would have a three-storey concrete base supporting nine storeys of wood-frame. The architects note that building with wood in Calgary’s oldest neighbourhood makes a certain historical sense. 

It’s another reason building with wood makes sense. It remains to be seen if the project wins over local residents. As is often the case with inner-city development there is opposition to the scale of the project. But with its nod to the past and its forward-looking construction materials, it seems like a project whose time has come.

June 11th, 2020
Updated: June 18th, 2020

Technical advances give an old material new life.