In Japan, there is a wood temple built by Buddhist monks which has been standing since 607AD. That’s a 1413-year-old building still standing at five stories tall. Wood is an ancient material and looking as far back as we can into Canadian civilization, wood was the material of choice. Indigenous builders observed and understood the material’s properties so well that they would create bentwood structures crossing the strands creating the strongest configuration for the least amount of waste. The material would come from the earth and go back to the earth. Once Colonizers discovered Canada, they exploited the land through fur trading and logging. Not too long after, industrialization took off and steel and concrete structures took over. Now we are experiencing the next revolution, the digital age, and with advances in computer-aided tooling, timber is making a comeback.
Where did timber go?
In the early ages of industrialization, factories along the rust belt were made from mass timber. There are many examples in Toronto of these timber beam and brick buildings with nail laminated timber floors. Chicago was also full of mass timber architecture and was subsequently the reason the city burned to the ground in 1871. This infamous fire resulted in regulation for fire spread prevention and formed the national building code as we know today. Mass timber buildings ceased to be designed – it was expensive to meet code and the organic nature of wood made it difficult to find large enough blemish-free spans. But advances in digital tooling have now made structural wood much easier to fabricate. European and Scandinavian countries have invested heavily in wood technology schools and more recently Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) can be seen emerging in North America.
What is CLT?
CLT is cross-laminated dimensional lumber made into large panels – almost like giant sheets of plywood. The cross lamination creates strength in both directions and is much lighter than typical steel and concrete structures, allowing foundations to be cheaper. Currently, Canadian CLT uses glue for lamination, but a company in Germany is producing one hundred percent wood product fastened by just dowels . This company even goes so far as to ensure trees are logged during a waning or new moon to harvest the hardest wood . The natural strength of wood is fascinating; it does not use its own mass- to be stacked like blocks of cheese- rather the fibers are like-bunched like rope so its true strength engages when in tension. Mass timber is also uniquely efficient in the way it is constructed:
- Since parts are prefabricated in a shop and transported to site, they are cost, time and material efficient.
- Openings for thresholds and services are all pre-milled, requiring far fewer trade workers to work on-site.
Residents near the Brock Commons 18-storey CLT tower in Vancouver were pleasantly surprised by how quiet its construction was. This change in construction style has been a challenge for the building industry but is an inevitable change to be embraced.
If that’s not enough to motivate you to support mass timber, here’s the most important factor:
With the current climate crisis we need to reduce our carbon footprint more than ever. Local growing and manufacturing greatly reduces embodied energy and requires no fossil fuels. Forests in Northern Ontario with world-leading sustainable forest management have the potential to become big commodities for our economy, like they once were in the early years of colonial Canada. This time, instead of clear-cutting forests, the land can be sustainably harvested to preserve biodiversity. Railway infrastructure from Northern Ontario exists from the logging-turned-mining industry. I optimistically anticipate that mass timber manufacturers will set up alongside the railway near sustainable forests and sawmills, reducing transportation pollution. Supporting local products means money generated stays here, and can return in the form of research and land stewardship.
Not only is the carbon footprint of local wood very low – it’s negative.
Any carbon created by production is neutralized, and like the impact of planting trees in a city, timber continues to absorb and trap CO2 throughout its lifetime. The embodied value is more than just its cost; timber’s value extends to cultural heritage, community wellness and land stewardship. No one material is the best choice for every application- concrete and steel are still needed. But if you’re looking to invest in well-being, then wood is pretty good.