An artist rendering of the Wood Innovation Design Centre being built in Prince George.

Will B.C. jump on the chance to be at the forefront of the movement towards wood high-rises?

“Concrete jungles” may become a thing of the past, thanks to a new initiative that will add wood-frame skyscrapers to Canadian skylines.

On May 6, the Canadian Wood Council announced funding opportunities for high-rise wood demonstration projects of 10 storeys or more—taller than any other wood-frame building in the world. Chosen projects will receive up to $1 million from Natural Resources Canada toward innovative designs that showcase the applications and benefits of wood construction.

It’s an important step that puts Canada firmly in the running to be the world leader in building with wood—a quest in which B.C. is leading the charge. The initiative comes on the heels of changes to B.C. building codes in 2009, allowing residential wood-frame buildings of up to six storeys (up from four), as well as breaking ground this month on the Wood Innovation Design Centre in Prince George—at 30 metres high, it will be the tallest wood building in North America.

While concrete has been the mainstay of high-rise construction for the last century, new technology in wood-frame construction is claiming some competitive advantages. Construction with “mass timber”—large-scale wood panels constructed from small pieces of wood glued together—offers improved sound attenuation over traditional two-by-four construction and meets all fire and earthquake safety standards for high-rises. It’s generally cheaper than building with concrete, and a whole lot faster. Plus, it has a significantly lower environmental impact: wood suppresses carbon rather than emits it, and mass timber can be made with small and lower-grade pieces of wood, younger trees that are more easily renewable and the millions of acres of mountain pine beetle deadwood in B.C.

In fact, mass timber construction offers big potential for B.C. lumber. “It’s a huge value-add for the forest industry,” says Michael Green, the architect behind Prince George’s Wood Innovation Design Centre and one of B.C.’s greatest proponents of mass-timber construction. “We have the potential to be a global leader in exporting not just building materials but building structures. So far, we’re ahead of the game in this.”

Green predicts we’ll see wood buildings as high as 30 storeys within the next 15 to 20 years—but that the biggest challenge to the advent of wood high-rises is waiting for building codes and public perception to catch up to the science. “It’s about teaching everybody the story of why and how, and making them feel comfortable and safe about it,” says Green, calling the demonstration projects a “stepping stone” in this process. “If we push up to 30 storeys, that makes people more confident about 15 or 16—that’s the sweet spot.”