Can B.C. lead the world in building tall wood towers?

Wood Innovation and Design Centre | BCBusiness
The Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George.

B.C. is among a handful of regions developing taller wood towers. Can forestry’s new specialty grow into a major export?

In 2011, Bill Downing made a pivotal investment decision. The president of Penticton-based Structurlam Products, a heavy timber maker, had been touring wood manufacturing plants in Europe’s Alpine region for years, trying to decide whether or not to introduce their unique product to the North American market. Cross-laminated timber (CLT), dense wood panels developed by the Swiss in the early ’90s, was touted as an alternative to concrete—and a key technology to building taller wood towers.

Setting up the infrastructure back home wouldn’t be cheap. “We had to build a building and put this very expensive, mostly German machinery into the plant,” Downing says. Special equipment is required to manufacture CLT, which is created by gluing together thin layers of softwood lumber at right angles under heavy pressure. But if done right, the gamble could pay off: Structurlam is taking spruce, pine and fir—all abundant in B.C.—and “tripling its value” per square metre by manufacturing CLT.

One of Structurlam’s more recent clients is the Province of B.C., which financed construction of the $25-million Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George. That building, which opened last October, is the tallest modern all-wood structure in North America, at almost 30 metres high (albeit only six storeys). Beginning this fall, it will house UNBC’s new master’s program in modern wood engineering. Like the manufactured material itself, innovation—realizing wood’s potential—is key to positioning B.C. as a dominant player in the emerging sector of advanced wood architecture.

Erol Karacabeyli, research manager at FPInnovations—a scientifically minded forestry nonprofit with facilities across Canada—believes we are already a world leader. “Our CLT handbooks, tall wood building guide and energy guides are considered the best in their categories in the world,” Karacabeyli says. And by 2017, UBC could be home to a record-setting 18-storey wood tower, he adds, referring to a $76-million proposal to build a new campus residence with engineered heavy timber like CLT.

But Guido Wimmers, the professor in charge of the new program at UNBC, says B.C. isn’t yet front-of-pack in terms of building taller wood structures. “In North America, it’s fair to say we are leading,” Wimmers explains, but he believes we’re behind Europe’s Alpine region—Switzerland, Germany, Austria—and perhaps Scandinavia and Australia. That said, “all these other countries are not that far ahead. It is a relatively new thing to build tall wood structures in our modern world.” It’s also a way to add more value to our wood, Wimmers says: “Rather than sell off relatively low-value wood, we need to sell value-added products.”

That all sounds great, but are people buying? For Structurlam, “the market [for CLT] has been good,” Downing says. “It’s a specialty product, but the demand is building. It’s not going crazy, but it’s growing.” Structurlam has actually been in business since 1962, he points out, selling glulam—short for glued laminated timber—which is similar to CLT but older and ideal for beams, whereas CLT is wide and flat and made for walls and floors.

While there are obvious environmental reasons for choosing CLT over concrete, Downing stresses the business benefits: “The main reason you’d buy CLT is the speed of installation.” Essentially, your walls and floors come pre-assembled, saving you the time it takes to pour concrete. “Now people are applying it to taller wood buildings, and it’s an added bonus.” With traditional “stick frame” structures—think two-by-threes and plywood—you couldn’t go higher than six storeys, he says, but thanks to CLT and other heavy timbers, that’s changing.

One major obstacle for taller wood projects is local building codes, although with recent legislative changes, things are looking up: B.C. and Ontario have passed laws permitting six-storey wood structures, and Alberta is considering following suit. Downing says the old regulations are not relevant to heavy timber, which due to its density does not burn easily. If stick frames were like kindle, CLT is more comparable to the whole log—much harder to light. And unlike concrete, which collapses “catastrophically” in fires, CLT burns slowly and predictably.

Luckily, the momentum appears to be in Downing’s favour. “I certainly see a trend toward larger and larger buildings,” he says. “The buildings we’re doing now are way bigger than the ones we did even five years ago.” And they’re only scratching the surface, he adds. “We could prefabricate a 10-storey building and ship it anywhere in the world—if the technology takes off like we hope it does.”

Going up

Using CLT and glulam, a handful of wood towers around the world are reaching new heights—and setting new records.

1. Forte apartments (2012), 10 storeys, Melbourne*
*Current record holder; first floor is concrete (pictured)

2. Wood Innovation and Design Centre (2014), 6 storeys, Prince George

3. Planned apartment building (2015), 14 storeys, Bergen, Norway

4. Proposed UBC residence (2017), 18 storeys, Vancouver