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Mass timber in buildings: the reasons to bet on wood

Mass timber in buildings: the reasons to bet on wood

TORONTO – Over the past few years, Canada has seen a rise in the use of timber as a construction material for large-scale building projects. Just a decade ago, many viewed timber as a poor alternative to more traditional materials like concrete and steel. Wood, they claimed, was not structurally reliable or fire-resistant enough. There was also, understandably, an unwillingness to let go of the status quo.
As President of the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario, I have watched with excitement as those arguments have been proven wrong and attitudes have begun to change. This shift has largely taken place thanks to a better understanding of mass timber and its new applications. Not only can wood construction match the structural benefits of its heavier and often costlier counterparts, but there are other considerations which make it attractive as a building material.

When I learned that Sidewalk Labs intended to make extensive use of tall timber in their Quayside development proposal, I was especially thrilled that our city, province and country might be part of this evolution in construction.

Canada has been leading the charge on mass timber projects for some time. In 2017, the University of British Columbia finished building Brock Commons, an 18-story student residence the first in the world to be constructed almost entirely from wood. Closer to home, the University of Toronto is planning a 14-storey tower made of timber for its downtown campus. These two projects, like many others across the country and around the world, have been spearheaded by architects, builders and engineers who understand the potential of timber construction.

What also makes the Quayside proposal so exciting are the economic opportunities presented by the concept of an entire neighborhood constructed in mass timber. By building at such a scale, and emphasizing mass timber, Sidewalk Labs may provide definitive proof that the material can outperform on multiple fronts.
It’s estimated that by using the material, construction project timelines can be shortened by 35 per cent. That means less hassle, less delay and less cost. Mass timber is also easier to manufacture than steel, especially in Toronto where the price of steel and rebar for concrete construction has risen significantly over the past few years, particularly since the introduction of the recent punitive trade tariffs.

Environmentally, mass timber has a unique appeal: it captures carbon dioxide, rather than releasing it as concrete and steel do. For instance, it’s estimated that the use of mass timber for Brock Commons in Vancouver captured 1,753 tonnes of carbon and prevented emissions of a further 679 tonnes. That is roughly equivalent to 500 cars taken off the road for a full year. Just imagine the impact of an entire neighborhood built with sustainable timber.

Toronto has the potential to build the world’s first neighborhood made entirely out of this incredible material. The economic benefits would go well beyond Quayside. The project would revitalize Canada’s timber manufacturing sector, which has lagged other countries’, despite our abundance of certified forests.

Sidewalk Labs has said it would provide financial support for a mass timber factory. This could jump-start a sustainable timber industry in Ontario and create 2,500 jobs over 20 years. These opportunities could bring jobs and technology to northern Ontario, both of which could be especially crucial for young people and for Indigenous communities in the region.
This development can contribute to an important linkage between Toronto/GTA and Northern Ontario communities. As President of the Carpenters’ District Council of Ontario, I hear weekly of mills being closed, of the lack of jobs, of the need for economic development and a diversified economy.

A mass timber manufacturing initiative can address some of those issues: fill the gap emerging in construction products required in the GTHA; link our supply chain to proper forest management, high-end manufacturing; and, establish ties with research/design centres at Colleges and Universities in the North.
Or, we can “miss the boat”. With the Canadian Wood Council, I visited various towns and cities in Austria and Italy (in the Trentino) where prosperity was being driven by investments in mass timber and supplying the Euro/Global construction industry with the timber products they demand.

Manufacturing, design, research and numerous subsidiary industries were all linked to the mass timber sector and all were contributing to the global leadership of the Sud Tirol in Austria and the Trentino Region of Italy.
It is a benchmark for Ontario. We should take the lead and develop our own diverse mass timber sector.

I’ve been in the Wood sector for decades. The opportunities for sectoral growth with mass timber manufacturing outstrip any others. Maybe all that has been needed is a catalyst for Toronto and Canada to seize that opportunity (“carpe diem”) and show the world the impact it can have.

Sidewalk Labs’ proposal for Quayside may be the strongest signal yet. We must study and support it.

Mike Yorke
President of the Carpenters District Council of Ontario and Director of Public Affairs & Innovation

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