Mass timber gains momentum with construction sector as province starts on promotion

Vancouver Sun | Derrick Penner | Publishing date: Jul 19, 2020

A building named Crest is rising six stories above Lonsdale Ave. in North Vancouver to add 179 units of housing to the neighbourhood, but it is also something of a billboard for British Columbia’s ambitions for construction in mass timber.

It is the second mass-timber project for developer Adera, which is undergoing somewhat of a conversion to building more with engineered wood products, rather than more traditional, two-by-four wood-frame construction.

“We’re just around 500 homes that are under construction or have been built in the last, call it two years maximum, (using) mass timber technology,” said Adera senior vice-president marketing and sales Eric Andreasen.

Mass-timber methods call for designs to be drawn using sophisticated 3-D computer models. Components are then manufactured to precise specifications, with windows, doors, and openings needed to install pipes, wiring, and mechanical systems pre-cut into the panels and beams.

Construction becomes more like assembly as parts are delivered to a site, which requires less clearing, smaller foundations because the material is lighter, and fewer deliveries because the components arrive already whole.

The components might cost more, and manufacturing needs to be planned ahead of time, but Andreasen said framing up a mass-timber structure takes 30 to 40 percent less time than conventional framing. Adera has even trademarked a building and soundproofing technique: SmartWood. “We really are embracing it, we believe it’s the future,” Andreasen said.

Delta North MLA Ravi Kahlon likes the sound of that, as the recently appointed parliamentary secretary tasked with promoting the minority government’s agenda to retool B.C.’s forestry sector into higher-value engineered wood products.

The province has long championed the products of its own forest industry.

The previous government had a “wood first” mandate for public projects, which Premier John Horgan promised to build upon by using infrastructure spending in particular to boost the market for engineered wood products such as cross-laminated timber paneling or glue-laminated beams.

Kahlon was appointed to his position on June 16, leading government efforts along with an assistant deputy minister in the civil service, Jeff Vassey, whose sole job will be to smooth over issues related to building codes or industry training across ministries as they contemplate capital projects.

A year ago, Horgan promised delegates at the Council of Forest Industries’ annual convention in Vancouver that the province would use mass timber in the $1.9 billion redevelopment of a new St. Paul’s Hospital and renovation of the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria.

Now, that effort has been consolidated in a mass-timber-implementation office, which has been placed in the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing to, as Kahlon puts it, promote the use of mass timber in schools, in long-term-care homes, or social housing.

In the meantime, developers, including Adera, are forging ahead with mass timber.

“They’re moving the construction industry with that project and now we’re starting to see other companies jump in,” Kahlon said.

Andreasen said they’ve worked through an “acceptance stage,” of architects, engineers, builders and public officials becoming more familiar with mass-timber techniques. Adera’s first mass timber project was Virtuoso, a 104-home development at the University of B.C., completed in 2017. Before that, Adera had used engineered-timber panels and beams as design components within wood-frame buildings for the look and warm feel of wood, and at first designed the Virtuoso project in a similar fashion. At the last minute, however, the company decided to re-engineer it as a mass-timber building, and haven’t looked back.

“The first time around, we had to work through some growing pains with trades that hadn’t really done it, but were willing to make the effort,” Andreasen said. “Now, as people are learning how it works, it’s becoming much less tedious and much, much simpler and quicker to do.” Faster construction was a big factor in rival developer Cape Group’s decision to pursue two rental apartment building projects — one nine storeys and the other six storeys — near the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver’s False Creek Flats.

“We’ve actually had mass timber on our radar, I’m going to say for the last six years,” said Zack Ross, Cape Group’s chief operating officer.

An engineer, Ross said he is drawn to technical matters related to the environmental aspects of carbon sequestration in mass-timber components, and their recyclability in a life-cycle analysis of buildings. However, Cape is proposing the apartments under an affordability program, “so it meets part of the affordability goal, directly and indirectly, through the construction process. “It has got all these interesting things layered into it,” Ross said.

Cape is at the point of interviewing potential suppliers for the engineered-timber components they will need, and Ross is encouraged that new manufacturers have emerged, giving them a couple of options.

“(Product availability) might have been more of a concern five years ago with respect to supply, but we just went and toured some factories this week,” Ross said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has played havoc with short-term construction timelines, said Hardy Wentzel, CEO of Structurlam Mass Timber Corp., B.C.’s leader in engineered timbers, but the outlook is positive.

“Our construction business held on pretty good,” Wentzel said, despite some project timelines experiencing what the industry has nicknamed “COVID drift.”

Structurlam employs 280 people at their operations in B.C., which isn’t quite running at full capacity, though momentum for mass timber is building, according to Wentzel

The company has put more marketing emphasis on physically distanced online webinars, which they’ve delivered to 650 people, he said.

“So there are a lot of people wanting to look at mass-timber designs in their future building plans.”

Adera’s first mass-timber project was Virtuoso development at UBC. PICASA/jpg

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