Painful Truth: Tallest wood building, for now

UBC is currently seeing the construction of a world leader.

The new Brock Commons, an 18-storey student dormitory, will be one of the world’s tallest wooden buildings once it’s finished. It may be the tallest inhabited wooden structure – I’ve failed to find a taller building.

A few years back, the building code only allowed for wooden buildings (wood frame buildings) up to four storeys. Then the province relaxed the building code to allow for up to six.

There have also been a few other innovative projects using wood, including the big mass timber beams holding up the roof of the Langley Events Centre.

For all that B.C. has a lot to offer, we aren’t often a world leader in big industries. But we do know an awful lot about timber. So the construction of Brock Commons is an interesting and hopeful development.

It was a Vancouver architect, Michael Green, who four years ago released The Case For Tall Wood Buildings. It was a manifesto/marketing tool/engineering report on how and why we should build in wood, up to 30 storeys.

Mass timber is a newish technique that involves not using simple two-by-fours of wood frame construction, but using huge beams of engineered, composite lumber. They’re stronger than simple cut wood, too big to burn through in an ordinary fire, and seem to be more flexible and resistant to a quake than reinforced concrete.

In theory, they might eventually be cheaper than concrete, though Brock Commons will cost about eight per cent more than if it had been built in a conventional way.

Still, an eight per cent surcharge isn’t bad for a test run of a newish building style.

The hope is that if more such structures are built, costs will come down. Many of the components of Brock Commons are being manufactured off site and trucked in, assembled like a giant LEGO structure.

If there were a dozen such buildings going up, prices would fall.

How about a hundred?

Even a booming Lower Mainland doesn’t need that many wood towers a year. But we have the timber, and we’re building up the expertise in design and assembly. There has already been overseas interest in similar projects.

Hopefully, B.C. will be a world leader in an industry that combines sustainable forestry, manufacturing, and construction.


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