Mass timber rises as builders look for speed and sustainability

Business In Vancouver

Originally published January 8, 2020 on Business In Vancouver

Building up

A new year brings new beginnings, and for Penticton-based Structurlam Mass Timber Corp., that includes building on key developments from last year.

With its expertise in cross-laminated timbers, it welcomed changes in the B.C. Building Code last March allowing for mass-timber construction in buildings of up to 12 storeys. Canada’s national building code will adopt similar rules this year.

Structurlam recently won a contract for the first project approved under the new B.C. code, a tower DB Services of Victoria Inc. is building in the Vancouver Island municipality of Langford. Other projects are in the planning stages, including one by Adera Development Corp. that includes mass timber as a component of its Quiet Home approach to construction, and an 83-room addition to the Ramada Kelowna Hotel & Conference Centre by RPB Hotels & Resorts of Penticton.

“I have never seen a code adoption happen so quickly in any of the other sectors I’ve been involved with,” remarked Structurlam CEO Hardy Wentzel.

The changes in Canada parallel similar changes in the U.S., which now allows mass-timber construction in buildings of up to 18 storeys. Structurlam, which expanded its workforce to 290 with the addition of 70 people over the past year as capacity at its four B.C. plants grew, is building a fifth facility in Conway, Arkansas, to serve the U.S. That facility will open in 2021.

It’s not just the new building code that’s been adopted speedily. The buildings themselves rise quickly, with a minimal labour force. Brock Commons, the landmark 18-storey tower at the University of British Columbia that served as a precursor to the code changes, went up in just 57 days with a workforce of nine people.

“A construction site is actually more of an assembly site now than a construction site because so much of this is done in a factory,” Wentzel said. “It’s quite remarkable how much faster construction is, and when you do that you get to monetize your investment that much sooner.”

Similar arguments have been voiced in favour of modular construction, which is enjoying popularity not only for low-income housing in Vancouver but also for hotels such as the new 104-room Hyatt Place in Prince George that Mundi Hotel Enterprises Inc. of Kamloops is developing with components from the Kamloops plant of Horizon North Logistics Inc. That hotel is set to complete next month.

Long goodbye

This should be the year the farewell party happens for the Georgia and Dunsmuir viaducts, which Vancouver city council approved in 2015. Removal was then expected to begin in 2017 and complete by this year, but the detailed planning required for the project has continued to push demolition into the future.

The new year is set to be the same as the old year, it seems.

City staff, responding to a query last month, said that demolition hinges on securing funding for the viaducts’ replacement. The sources of that funding include revenues from community amenity contributions and other development-related charges and concessions. One source of the funding is Concord Pacific’s planned redevelopment of the Plaza of Nations, currently in rezoning.

Taxes remain

Vancouver’s decision to hike property taxes 7% last month to cover expenses this year after slashing half a percentage point from budgeted expenses was likely still rankling property owners as they opened their assessment notices last week.

The city says the increase works out to an additional tax payment of $130, or $10.83 per month, for the median residential property, and an additional $225, or $18.75 a month, for the median business property. While a more accurate assessment of impact than the average, there’s just one median property; half of the city’s property owners sit north of this benchmark and will pay a lot more.

It’s also worth noting that the impact on the median business property will be 73% higher than on the median residential owner, notwithstanding city staff’s acknowledgement that tax increases in recent years have made it “extremely challenging” for neighbourhood retailers and not-for-profits to be viable.