B.C.’s focus on heavy timber and mass wood construction is reshaping the construction industry, creating a new type of construction expertise, while also showing the private sector that mid and highrise wood structures can make economic sense.
“Since the beginning of this year, we are starting to see more interest from developers in these projects and the City of Vancouver is also interested in them,” said Eric Karsh, structural engineer and co-founder of Equilibrium Consulting Inc., a Vancouver firm that specializes in large timber, engineered structures.
“We are now just beginning to see developers seriously consider eight-to-10 storey solid wood buildings.”
The City of Vancouver is providing equivalencies such as reduced parking for the construction of wood buildings, which can translate into a plus for developers, he said, and there is the growing realization that the prefabrication approach offered by mass timber construction can expedite construction and reduce costs.
“We are developing details that show these buildings are cost efficient enough and developers are beginning to take notice,” he said.
That interest is a change from earlier attempts to kick-start private sector involvement. In 2012, wood advocate and architect Michael Green and Karsh published the Case for Tall Wood study, which advocated for wood highrises up to 20 storeys and spoke with builders and developers regarding wood’s viability for mid-and highrise use.
“One developer at that time said that this looked convincing but he was not going to be the first — he was going to be the third,” said Karsh, as cautious investors tend to look to others to trail-blaze prototypes.
“It is really about risk management. The demonstration buildings have really got the ball rolling.”
The two B.C. landmark structures are Prince George’s eight-storey Wood Design Innovations Centre and the 18-storey University of B.C. Brock Commons student residence, now under construction as the world’s tallest wood structure.
At the same time, structures such as the UBC Thunderbirds high performance baseball training centre, which is a low-rise structure built from prefabricated laminated strand lumber panels, is throwing a fast ball for the speed such mass timber products can deliver.
“It was erected in two weeks and it is just not a box,” said Karsh, whose company did the structural engineering on the $3.5 million project.
The demonstration buildings that use mass wood products have also helped carve out a new expertise for B.C. construction companies who have stepped into erection of the prefabricated products once done by manufacturer crews.
“Several years ago, there were two or three companies that could do this work. Now there are twice as many,” said Karsh.
Seagate Structures is one of the companies that have jumped into the void, with work beginning at the Mountain Equipment Co-op headquarters, where 100,000 square feet of nail laminated timber panel flooring was installed as well as large glulam timbers.
Ralph Austin, who views his company as participating in the big-wood revolution, is convinced eventually there will be more component-style construction done. Seagate, on these projects, is considered an erector, installer, or assembler of the building’s components, such as is the case at Brock Commons.
“We are just putting the pieces in place,” he said.
“I know how many pieces there are and where they go. It’s like a LEGO set.”
This emerging style of construction expertise may also be a saving grace for looming skills shortages.
Austin said the skill level for installation is lower than the skilled trades required for traditional construction.
He already utilizes a portable and mobile prefab station that allows him to prefabricate walls for light timber frame construction projects and better control costs and reduce waste.
But, he sees other opportunities.
“Where I see the opportunity (for mass timber use) is in the four-to-six storey buildings. Why not use CLT for the elevator, or the balcony, or the hallways?” he said, adding the panel sizes lend themselves to easy installation in these areas. But, resistance is still coming from building owners who view mass timber panels as adding too much to the building’s cost, he said.
Brent Olund, vice-president of construction for Urban One Builders, which is managing Brock Commons’ assembly, said B.C. is developing some experience in mass timber use in mid-and highrise buildings, but that it is drawn from demonstration buildings and it may not be the same as developing expertise.
“Expertise is really a function of supply and demand,” he said, as more buildings beyond simply demonstration buildings are needed to improve the assembly and prefab methods and further reduce costs.
The gap between the cost of a concrete and a mass timber highrise is closing. Currently, he said, there is a $10 per square foot difference in favour of concrete in cost estimates between Brock Commons and a similar concrete structure on campus.
“It (expertise) comes by having an economic business case which the private developer sees is economically beneficial and starts to demand it,” he said.
However, developers usually want the cost economics nailed down first.
“It is really becomes a chicken and egg game,” he said