Mass timber key to sustainable construction, but not whole story

Sarah Bingham Aug. 13, 2021

GUEST COLUMN: Earlier this year at an international climate summit led by President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set an ambitious goal to combat climate change. Trudeau pledged Canada would reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 40 to 45 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Trudeau said Canada is “now on track to blow past our old target”; however, according to a report published by Environment and Climate Change Canada, greenhouse gas emissions in Canada actually climbed slightly in 2019, the first year that the national carbon pricing mechanism was in place.

It is widely recognized that the building sector contributes between 30–40 per cent of global annual GHG emissions. Action taken from this sector could have a profound effect in reducing the effects of climate change.

In Canada, the building sector is one of the highest polluters, accounting for about 12 per cent of total GHG emissions, surpassed only by the oil and gas and the transportation sectors. More needs to be done to slow down and perhaps reverse the polluting of our climate. It’s time for Canada’s building industry to take some bold steps.

Part of the solution is for Canada’s builders to fully engage with sustainable and renewable mass timber design, manufacturing and construction. Timber is a plentiful and renewable resource in Canada and the only construction material that stores carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere. Building with mass timber sourced from sustainably managed forests creates strong, decarbonizing structures with one third of the emissions as materials such as concrete and steel.

Mass timber panels are manufactured in B.C. by laminating together smaller sections of lumber to create structural components for the building industry, known as Cross Laminated Timber (CLT). These engineered and prefabricated components can be used to assemble walls, columns, beams and floors, and are sturdier, quieter and have similar fire resistance as concrete structures. Because the materials are pre-constructed offsite, building with mass timber also reduces the time spent and the amount of waste produced at construction sites. British Columbia is a centre of mass timber excellence, and we have skilled manufacturers able to supply this material using lumber sourced in our region.


Building on mass timber excellence

Engaging with mass timber is only part of the solution to cleaning up Canada’s building industry.

A high degree of sensible forestry stewardship is essential to ensure we are able to build with mass timber for generations to come. Canada must commit to sustainable forest management, as well as encourage greater innovation at forestry mill operations to promote emissions reductions at mills, with the goal of reaching net-zero. Such practices are commonplace in many countries in Europe. In addition, our government must prioritize its support for value-added efforts such as Hemlock harvesting for CLT manufacturing to encourage the transition to more sustainable building practices and support these industries in attracting and retaining skilled workers to meet the increase in demand.

The time is now to focus on sustainability in the design process while incorporating measures such as enhanced building envelope design to reduce energy spent on heating and cooling, while prioritizing high efficiency HVAC and lighting systems that reduce our buildings’ emissions.

This industry further needs to get involved in cleaning our sector in other areas. Seeking and developing strategies to reduce or offset our operational energy use must be part of our overall sustainability initiatives.

Governments must lead the charge to encourage more sustainable building by removing barriers and providing incentives for building larger, taller mass timber structures — and more of them in our cities. Facilitating the switch to mass timber will not only help Canada reach its climate goals, but also put Canada forward as a global leader in mass timber construction while stimulating Canada’s economic growth.

Recent fluctuations in our timber prices further show that government and industry must work together to ensure a steady, stable supply of cost-competitive products so that the mills can provide the private sector with adequate construction materials. It would be unfortunate for out-of-control timber prices to derail the positive momentum behind mass timber.

With climate change at a global tipping point and society focusing on the irreversible effects of this challenge, the need for decarbonizing solutions from Canada’s building industry has never been greater.


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