Timber towers: strong, safe, sophisticated and green

In 2009, BC became the first province in Canada to allow five-and six-storey mid-rise buildings to be made from wood

By David Lindsay,

President and CEO,

Forest Products Association of Canada

Wood construction is no longer just about basic 2x4s or panels or flooring for single family homes.  Advances in science and building technology have led to robust products for taller wood-framed buildings including mid-rise housing, schools, warehouses, offices, stores and recreational facilities.

Innovation in wood construction is expanding the options and providing more choice for builders and architects. It also seems to be unsettling competing building material organizations that have launched a blatant misinformation campaign falsely questioning the safety and environmental credentials of wood frame buildings.

Let me tell you the facts of the matter.

In 2009, British Columbia became the first province in Canada to allow five-and six-storey mid-rise buildings to be made from wood; more than 250 such buildings are now completed, under construction or in the design stage. Recommended changes to the 2015 National Building Code of Canada would offer this mid-rise option to the entire country. This recommendation comes after years of rigorous study by technical experts with support from research organizations such as the National Research Council and FPInnovations.

The latest in engineering and performance-based design have paved the way for higher wood frame buildings that comply or even surpass up-to-date code requirements for fire safety and building durability. Tests also show wood buildings provide great resilience in the face of earthquakes and high winds.

Advanced wood materials are also an economic choice.  For example, cross-laminated timber (CLT) is assembled in the factory, which cuts down on construction errors and time.  The ease of building makes wood frame construction a cost-effective choice that will increase affordability for home buyers. From a larger perspective it could create new construction jobs in cities and support employment in rural forest communities.  Another plus is the possibility of increased export opportunities for current and future innovative wood products.

Certainly no-one should doubt the positive environmental credentials of wood. Canada still has 91 per cent of its original forested area, the greatest percentage in the world for forestry nations.  The deforestation rate is virtually zero with 650 million new seedlings planted each year. Canada has 150 million acres of forest independently certified to follow sustainable forest management, or about 40 per cent of the global total.

Another “green” advantage of wood is that unlike competing materials, it sequesters or stores carbon and therefore helps combat climate change. That is attractive for building designers who are facing ever growing pressure to reduce their carbon footprint.  Wood buildings also have a better thermal performance requiring less energy to heat and cool than structures made of other materials.

We would also argue that wood construction brings with it aesthetic benefits that add warmth and natural beauty to our buildings.

As Canada moves to taller mid-rise timber buildings, other countries are going even taller. For example in Australia, architects involved with a 10-floor building now under construction feel they could go up to 15 or even 25 storeys with the same structure design.

Competing building materials that are publicly attacking the merits of wood-frame buildings for fear of losing business should not be apprehensive.  Taller wood buildings will always need concrete foundations.  Some of the new materials are composites, such as wood-concrete floor and deck systems.  With increasing urban density, we can work together to build the best solid and attractive structures which will mean more jobs for all.

The proposed building code changes are not about favouring wood over other building materials.  It’s about levelling the playing field and providing choice for both buyers and occupants.

Let facts trump emotion – the truth is that wood constructions is strong and safe and a good option when it comes to the environment and economics as well.