Wood and Concrete, a Material Perspective: Canadian Wood Council
Interview with Peter Moonen, National Sustainability Manager, Canadian Wood Council
Overview on the emergence of “tall wood” for buildings over 6-storeys
Why does “tall wood” seem to be increasingly a construction option – and a prestige option at that – for residential and commercial construction over six storeys?
Peter Moonen: This morning at 2:30am, I was up giving a presentation by Skype to a conference in Poland on opportunities given what is happening in Canada with wood. But, I always say there is no perfect building material. If there was, we wouldn’t be having these discussions. Everyone would know it and everyone would build that way. Additionally, I don’t know of any building that is purely one material aside from an igloo. There are not very many buildings in Canada that are comprised solely of a single material. And almost every wood building is built on a concrete platform or a concrete foundation with rebar in it. It is the same with every steel building and there are not too many concrete buildings that are solely concrete as they depend on rebar. So we will not say that concrete is a bad material. I’ve never said that.
But what I will say is that people need to understand how materials can be integrated to get a higher performing, faster, more effective, more efficient and more beautiful structure. That gets to your later question about the future and the idea of combinations [of materials]. Let me just try to give an overview and then get into some of the issues in terms of cost, etc.
I want to start with your idea of why tall wood seems to be increasingly a construction option and why it seems also a very prestigious option. That is, why is wood now being put forward not just as a business or technical thing, but something that should be embraced in both residential and commercial, focusing on anything over six stories.
I don’t know about Toronto, but I have been in several buildings in Vancouver that are warehouse buildings from that turn of the last century with big wood columns and beams. Those are premium office spaces. People like the visual. I don’t know whether they like it because it’s old, it has a real massive feeling or it exudes stateliness. They were not super refined buildings when they were built, but there is a reverence for these old buildings. I love walking into those buildings. So the affection for tall wood buildings is not new.
We have a nine-story building in Vancouver that was built in 1905, The Landing in Gastown. It has brick facades, but if you go inside all the structure is big heavy columns and beams with metal connectors that work on the same principles as those used in UBC’s Brock Commons. So tall wood is not new. It’s not so much that we can now build tall wood; it is that we have forgotten that we once did. That is something important to establish. I have had discussions with friends in the concrete industry. They say we are encroaching on their market but it wasn’t always their market. It’s coming back. We forgot we could build those tall buildings.
The other thing is if you are an architect, engineer or contractor, you want to be able to have an understanding of what is the most appropriate material given societal aspirations whether it is cost, aesthetics, energy or environmental impact. These aspirations will shift over time so there may be opportunities or new demands that say we need a better way to do things. If you don’t have an understanding of the four basic material types, stone/masonry, wood, steel and concrete how can you really offer your clients the widest range of options that will work for them? I think it is not a discovery that wood can be used, it is a renewal. It is a memory brought forward again.
How has new technology contributed to this trend and how high can tall wood go given current technology? You talked about Brock Commons using the same sort of connective tissue as The Landing, but to what extent has new technology contributed to this trend?
PM: To start, there is design software and seismic modelling software. For example, you have connection systems to design. When I was in the detailing shop at Structurelam they could model every single bolt, every single plate as it must be connected in the manufacturing. They look at these details before they do any manufacturing to make sure if you put a specific bolt through a specific spot, it is not hitting another metal plate connection or hitting another bolt. This software allows you to basically build the entire building from the first piece of rebar to the last corner detail from start to finish. That is what was done with Brock Commons. This included every nut, every bolt, every panel, every column and every piece of rebar as well as the plumbing, mechanical and electrical. This was all done using software programming we didn’t have 20 years ago. Software allows us to know the best way to build a wall and how to connect each corner so that we can achieve air tightness or maximize thermal performance.
Seismic modelling ensures the proper distribution of seismic loads. There are models where they enter the seismic and building data on the computer and it highlights where there are stresses that could compromise the wood, the concrete or the metal. So technology had a big positive impact in the case of wood products. We also have resins that have improved manufacturing processes. Detailing is no longer guys with chainsaws carving out things. These are CLTs with tolerance to a fraction of a millimetre. It’s a combination of things impacting on wood as a structural building material.
What is the regulatory status of wood in terms of the national and provincial building codes in Canada and, if still not amended, how do buildings underway like Vancouver’s Shigeru Ban designed 17-storey condo?
PM: Brock Commons was done on a concrete foundation with a concrete plinth. So it is 17 wood storeys on one [concrete]. In BC you have the opportunity of site specific regulation but they only do a couple a year. Under this provision – this a very Coles Notes – a building is evaluated for a specific site development. If they wanted to build Brock Commons 10 meters away on a different site, it would not have been permitted as approval is not a precedent but an exemption or experiment on a particular site. So that’s called the site specific regulation. For Brock Commons, what they did do, however, is make the building comply to what was expected to be enforced under the 2015 building code which had not yet been fully adopted. That was the 2015 National Building Code that gets adopted by the provinces, sometimes with changes and with enhancements.
The seismic forces that were accounted for in Brock Commons were based on the 2015 National Building Code, not 2010. The National Building Code 2020 will allow tall timber and mass timber [to 12-storeys]. No code to my knowledge is going to allow tall wood buildings [over six stories] to be built with dimensional lumber as the structural material. So there is some confusion including from architects who say “oh, you can now build wood buildings up to 12 stories from dimensional lumber” and “I don’t think I’d like that.” I respond, “no, it’s heavy and mass lumber only, not 2x4s.” That sort of concern is out there, usually around fire, but there is not an understanding of the difference of how heavy and mass Timber responds to a fire.
But then how does Ban’s proposed 17-story condo get approved in Vancouver? The design even has exposed internal and external mass timber framing.
PM: That is being done under the City of Vancouver. I don’t know what they submitted to the city but the city has its own building code because it pre-existed the provincial building code. They have their own building by-laws although I don’t know exactly when it came into being. But it is the only municipality or government area in BC that does not have to follow the BC building code. Often times the requirements are the same as the BC code, but the city also has some requirements for higher energy performance. They have a low-carbon aspiration that they want to achieve. But [in the end] they are an island unto themselves when it comes to the building code and that is on what Shigeru Ban’s project rests.
In Toronto you have the Patkau’s 14-story Academic Tower, 3XN’s 10-story office building and Moriyama to Techima’s 11-story college building. How do they fit into the Ontario code?
PM: I am based in BC so I am not intimately familiar with the Ontario code. I think, however, the opportunity for wood structures is not that we will see a bunch of 40-60 story wood structure towers. But it will give a level of comfort to planners, developers and contractors and fire officials that 12-story buildings are okay.
There are also a number of tall projects in Vancouver in the submission stage. It is not prudent to name the developers, although some are commonly known. One that I’m thinking of, they are doing it both a bunch of reasons but also for ego. They are not getting any subsidies or funding for research. They believe, in part, this is where local government would like to see buildings go with lower embodied impact and lower operational impact. The details of some of these projects come to me [through various media sources] so they don’t really give me enough meat to evaluate properly.
The Wood vs Concrete debate: Cost of building tall.
How does wood compare with concrete in terms of project cost from start to occupancy as well as in terms of total life cycle cost?
PM: From the point of view of cost, certainly where you can build under the code with light framing -2X4, 2X8 and panels – it is less expensive than concrete or steel. That is borne out by the fact that most single family homes are wood. Yes, there is steel and concrete but cost is a factor in those other ones although costs of all three materials are volatile. So there’s a market sensitivity to what people choose at the time they are designing, but wood has had a significant cost benefit for developers. Builders have gone to light frame up to the permitted six-storey. Light frame is also a cheaper option than mass timber, especially now that you can also get panels prefabricated and delivered on-site.
When it comes to taller wood buildings, I don’t think there is enough evidence out there to say it is way more expensive or way cheaper than steel or concrete because taller wood buildings in BC at seven, eight and up to 12-storeys are not numerous. With Brock Commons, there was a cost comparison done between it and a similar building built out of concrete that had started a couple years beforehand. But the two were built under different seismic conditions and one was part of a complex, one was a standalone. So there is a lot of variability and it is very difficult to determine the cost benefit or the cost impact of building with tall wood.
There is cost, there is price and there is value. Price is what you pay for it while cost sometimes involves externalized [and not directly measured] considerations. For example, If you are purchasing a material that is from outside of the country, such as structural steel from China or the United States, there is a cost to the local economy that never gets realized. Then there is value. How well is the building appreciated, how well does it perform? Do people like the building? So it is very difficult to saying it is “cheaper.” Is it really? The other aspect is, and we found this with timber-frame building, people say, “oh, well, you know single family home with timber frames are so expensive.” Well the structure isn’t [more expensive], but what people put into it is.
It’s very difficult to compare just the structural elements because buildings are not built to the same performance levels. They have different glazing, they have different flooring and finishing materials, for example. It is tough to say one material is always less expensive or always more expensive. What is the mind-set of the owner or occupant? Is it a speculative building? Is it a building to be owner occupied?
What are the issues around structural maintenance of wood versus concrete? Are concerns about difficulties and costs associated with protecting against material deterioration of wood structures, e.g. water, rot, insects, etc. valid, overrated or easily dealt with?
PM: The disaster of the 1990s with the condos was in many ways a design, detailing and construction failing. We live in a rainforest [in Vancouver] and a lot of those buildings had nowhere for water to go but lots of places for water to get in. There were no overhangs, etc. so water creeps in. The design of building envelopes should be resistant to ingress from water.
Most of the tall wood buildings and the multifamily structures have an exterior that is fire resistant, not a wood product. It doesn’t have the maintenance issues. Typically, they have a non-combustible cladding and the wood is maybe exposed at an entry or a canopy or something like that. Most of the wood is buried behind this non-combustible layer which protects it from the elements and from fire. That is one of the things that we’re trying to do at the Wood Council, to educate people about what is the best way to design these buildings because you want them, from a sustainability point of view, to last as long as they can, not just as a structure but as a building adaptable to future changes.
If you have a multifamily building, what happens when those families with two kids get smaller or have more in the family? You require adaptable buildings for future uses. Otherwise, they get torn down which is not really sustainable. There are a whole bunch of elements that underpin the question of maintenance. Do you really have to expose the wood? And if you do, how do you protect it?
I have a presentation on designing for durability and I put up nice pictures and not so nice pictures of exterior wood. Some have been very elegantly and effectively detailed, others you go: “Oh, problems.” If you don’t know how to design to protect the material, it is going to fail; and, I should point out, materials don’t fail, we fail materials when we design badly. It is our fault that the material failed. No one would use Styrofoam as a road bed for cars but that does not make it a bad material for appropriate uses. We have to understand materials because the leaky condo problem also affected steel structures as moisture causes rust and concrete will spall. It was a big issue and although a lot of the buildings were built with wood, it affected all materials.
The argument is made that one advantage to wood is it takes less time to construct a wood structure. While this may be so onsite, how does the timeline look when the off-site fabrication of components is added? Marriott hotels has started construction on a 27-storey hotel in New York using prefabricated concrete modules that will go into place completely finished in 90 days (not including foundation and two storey podium). Can/is wood module technology able to compete with this type of construction?
PM: There are two components to that. One is the mass timber aspect and one is the modular aspect. We were in a building in Vienna, a seven-story all CLT building. It was not built using modules but using prefabricated panels. It was also a passive house. We were also in a building called the Treet building [in Bergen Norway] that is a 14-story building from the ground up and it uses what is an exterior braced [glulam] frame structure with platforms every five floors. It had a “super platform” of steel and concrete at the fifth floor and at the tenth floor. Light frame modules that were built off-site were then dropped in place. So the braced frame structure went up in five, five and a four story sections. It was the same for the CLT stairwell and elevator core that were all prefabricated and then dropped in. The panels were assembled on site, but they were prefabricated elsewhere and brought in by barge or by truck. So whether the module is light frame or mass timber, will depend on whether it is load bearing and how much. On the Treet Building the bottom platform is only supporting a maximum of four other modules. So that’s basically a five-story light-frame building on a super platform because the load above it is carried by the next super platform above it.
If you wanted to have only a 10-story building, it may not be economic to have a similar external system where you have a super platform supporting five modules if the capacity of the material allows you to go 8, 10, 12 or 14 storeys that research has allowed the codes to permit.
Off-site construction is something that is going to happen in all material sectors, not just wood and not just concrete, partly because it allows you to have much greater accuracy. It allows you to protect your workers. It’s generally a safer environment with less waste. You have workers who aren’t being burdened by two degrees Celsius temperatures or rainy and windy days while they try to put everything together. So that is a transition underway. All the material sectors are looking at providing a way for our material to be prefabricated. It’s just the way things are going. All of them can be done using similar pouring or assembly practices done elsewhere [than on-site]. Those modules get dropped into place. Wood modules, however, tend to be a lot less heavy than concrete modules because of the density of the material.
Like building smart buildings, the argument is made that the country lacks the skilled workers and professionals (architects, structural engineers, etc.) to design and build tall wood structures. Is this an issue; and, if so, how can the industry resolve the problem?
PM: That is certainly the case everywhere in Europe. People are not going into those construction trades. It’s a problem in the UK. There has been a real concern for the last several years about where are we going to get people to build all the things that we are expecting to build. So the [Europeans] are really promoting and boosting the trades programs in schools. We have the same situation here. At a meeting I attended with the head of the Independent Contractors Businesses Association, [he stated] that by 2021 there will be more than 30,000 trades jobs going wanting in the Lower Mainland. At the same meeting, I heard there are $1.25 billion of projects that are not going forward because of delays due to trade shortages.
I suspect if you were to ask contractors in Toronto or Ottawa they would say they have the same problem getting rebar trades, electrical trades, plumbing trades or any other construction trade. My daughter is a project manager with a large electrical contracting company and their guys are going flat out. They are looking for more workers, but they can’t get them while other companies are trying to poach their workers.
Are we not looking at tall wood moving systems moving from for example having a hundred on-site trades on a project’s site to having perhaps 10 assemblers only with the rest of the jobs back in climate controlled factories?
PM: I would never say I want to work in a factory, but if I could work in a controlled environment where I didn’t have to dress up in a big freaking parka and work in the driving snow, I might reconsider. The trades shortage is going to have an impact and it’s going to require that we build more off-site. There is a whole host of other benefits from doing so. There are material efficiencies like being able to have a warehouse full of components rather than saying “oh crap, I need to have six washers” and have some guy go off to the local store to buy six washers. There are a whole bunch of economic, environmental, accuracy, and material impacts that come from having off-site production. Is it cheaper? It can be, depending on whether you are incorporating time into your value proposition.
For example, are you building in an area where there are trade shortages? There was a medical facility built in Bella Bella [up the BC coast], where the contract was granted sometime in March and they moved in in October of the same year. The contractor went up and started preparing the site but there is no accommodation in Bella Bella. So it’s expensive to bring trades there and they don’t have a [local] workforce there.
The Wood vs Concrete debate: Safety.
The safety of tall wood structures is an issue the Canadian Concrete Association (CAC) has raised as not yet adjudicated fully and this is probably the main concern affecting the general public’s acceptance of tall wood. The first issue is fire. How do today’s tall wood structures meet the fire standards for tall buildings? This would include both encased wood structure but also exposed wood often touted as an aesthetic strong point.
PM: During the construction of Brock Commons, several hundred firefighters toured the building during its construction. I also met a couple of firefighters from the interior of the province who were absolutely opposed to even six-story wood buildings. They went through a mass timber building in Penticton, part of the Lakeside Resort. One of the guys from North Okanagan said, “Oh, I get it now” and he has become a strong advocate of mass timber. Yes, it is wood, but the question that should be asked is not does it burn. I can make steel burn; you take a piece of steel wool and light a match under it and it burns. That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be used in buildings. So the question should be: how does it respond in a fire, remembering of course that the purpose of the fire code is to determine how long do people need to get out. That is how long your building has to stay standing. It’s not there to prevent damage, not there for property valuation or anything like that. It is there to allow people who are in it to get out. That is why there are generally higher egress requirements for hospitals, as well as other care facilities or schools.
Wood is predictable in its combustion and [wood] responds very well in a fire in that it burns at a particular rate that is understood by firefighters. So you are correct, wood does have a fairly good reputation in fire. But it is still wood, so you have to address that concern with tests and research.
I know that the concrete sector is fearful of market ingress, market penetration by wood into what they think is their typical market, but they shouldn’t really use fear as a defence against wood structures. As my mom said, if you can’t say something nice don’t say it at all. But I know people in the concrete sector who don’t like that tactic, but I get it that they want to protect their market share. But if you think that the code officials, engineers and firefighters are completely oblivious to the concerns of the occupants, that they don’t really care if it burns… that’s not how it goes. There are pretty rigorous ordeals that products have to go through before they get accepted.
The second issue is structural integrity. How do today’s tall wood structures respond to all the complex load issues of high buildings? What are the limits given today’s technology? Do tall wood buildings require concrete foundations, base podiums and/or central stair/elevator shafts to be stable? What are the seismic implications of tall wood buildings?
PM: Each material has its own properties in a seismic situation. I’m not an engineer, I’m just a mere marine biologist so you really need to talk to an engineer if you want to get into the details of that. [That said] Victoria is the most seismically active area in Canada and Victoria has more tall wood buildings that are being proposed to and vetted by city planners and engineers than anywhere else in BC. And one of the reasons is they know that wood performs very well under aggressive seismic conditions. The proposed Corvette Landing building is a 12 story structure in the very active seismic area of Esquimalt, for example.
Wood tends to absorb energy rather than solely transfer it. Steel and concrete transfer energy so their buildings can be very strong but they are transferring that load not absorbing it. Wood has an inherently organic aspect and because there is both a lot of air and elasticity in wood, it can absorb some of that energy. Have you seen the 7-story CLT test done by an Italian group years ago? They shook it on the earthquake table to the [force of the] Kobe earthquake of 1995. Only one thing broke during the test and that was a mounting bolt on the earthquake table.
I would not want to have been on the top floor, shaking like you wouldn’t believe; but, I think wood is clearly understood to have some advantages on the seismic issue. Now again, a lot of this depends on having a competent architect, a competent engineer and a competent contractor. It is the same with any other material. If it’s poorly built it is not going to succeed… we fail materials, materials don’t fail us in the end.
I’ve read a study that something like 68 per cent of people surveyed said “no” to living in a wood high-rise. On a somewhat different issue but related to safety, how do you overcome public scepticism about the safety of tall wood buildings?
PM: I’m never going to tell a person their crazy if that is a fear that has been built up over years. It’s going to be successful experiences [that change attitudes] of potential occupants. In Asia, one of the concerns around wood buildings is fire although part of that is they don’t have the same fire suppression and fire detection that we have here. So I completely understand why they would fear that. I can’t change their experience and I shouldn’t try to change their fear by saying that is simply stupid. That is just human nature.
It’s usually not the [building] material that is going to be the causing the problems, however. Wood, steel and concrete, they all have to meet the same fire resistance standards for a structure. But if I am an artist and I do oil painting and I’ve got thinners, paints etc. when I have a fire, those are going to cause me problems and be unmanageable. It is not the fact that the wood – which is behind gyprock in many cases – burns or that the steel starts to bend. Contents are really a greater concern than the structure itself.
The Wood vs Concrete debate: Environment/Green/Sustainability
One of the more contentious debates to emerge is over which building material/approach is best for the environment and reduction of carbon emissions.
PM: I will first talk about life cycle analysis. Typically wood, because it is a renewable resource, lighter weight and sequesters rather than emits carbon, is going to have a lower environmental impact. But again, it depends on how smart was your designer. Did they consider that if they say, “oh, I’m going to have 16 by 16 inch columns” instead of 10 by 10, you are going to have a higher impact even if it is not necessary from a functional or structural point of view. When buildings have been compared or wood, steel and concrete is being compared with each other with the same structure, wood comes out with a lower life cycle impact.
Can you cite a study that supports that conclusion?
PM: There was a paper done by Carolyn Smith at Natural Resources Canada out of the Pacific Forestry Institute. It looked at life cycle analysis for mass timber compared to other materials as a displacement factor. This study says that if you use mass timber you can displace the impact of x amount of concrete and steel.
Recently the IISD’s Emission Omissions Report, albeit funded by the CAC, argued that in some cases the carbon impact of wood construction may be higher than that of concrete if a proper life cycle analysis is applied. Are the study’s findings valid?
PM: Again, remember what I said about if you can’t say anything nice. If you look at their study, I believe they chose six scenarios and only one scenario – which is completely outlandish – showed wood was not better than concrete. We don’t generally respond to that kind of stuff. It really isn’t worth it. There was another report done on insurance [arguing] the insurance costs are higher. They didn’t consider the shortened [construction] time, nor did they consider the fire response, nor did they consider that insurance is not usually the decisive factor in whether a material gets used or not.
This is done by the concrete sector and it suggests: “oh my gosh, you should never use wood because your insurance might be higher.” I showed that to some insurance people and they were livid because it was completely a market access issue again, preying on fears.
To the recent the IISD report, we wrote a response to them. The thing that I got out of that is that current LCA [Low Carbon Alternatives] is not really able to deliver every piece of information. There is more work that has to be done on wood, on steel and on concrete.
There are people in the concrete industry who have said those trees will get cut down and they are not going to grow back in Canada. Are you kidding me, with [Canada having] some of the toughest legislation? I know that the Rocky Mountains are not going to grow back in our lifetime and that is where a lot of cement powder comes from. That is certainly not renewable. But our forest management practices in Canada are exemplary. That is because Canadians own most of the forest and they are not privately-held. We are not going to be putting out a counter report that says what’s better. We will let the LCA scientists and the LCA calculators determine that. There are several life cycle analysis tools out there and there’s also forest certification
The certification on forest is appropriate because it is renewable. How sustainable and renewable can concrete be? [In terms of the study] I think there are some procedural errors and there were people who were referred to who really had nothing to do with the report. I’m not going to get into that because that is second hand. But if you look at the report carefully, you see that there are six scenarios and only one of them showed concrete better than wood. And that was the best-case scenario for concrete and the worst case for wood where you cut down old growth forest and never replanted and converted the land to non-forest.
One argument in favour of wood is that new products like CLT pulls you away from old growth because smaller wood components are used and that is how it all got started in Austria. Apparently it was based on using smaller dimensional timber lumber rather than the larger old-growth. True?
PM: Yes. In fact, you not only use smaller components you are also getting more efficiency out of the tree. You are actually using less material. I have some solid eight-by-twelve Douglas fir beams in my house. If I had used an engineered product, however, that was 5 inches by 8 inches to carry the same load, I would have used about 30 per cent less wood. Defects in the wood like a knot are offset by the lamination above and below it. So not only do you use more wood from smaller trees more efficiently, you are actually using less material. Interestingly, old growth forest may often be carbon emitters. Even though they store a lot of carbon they are emitting it because they aren’t increasing their volumes. It’s disingenuous. There is the quote by somebody in this study that concludes the study proves concrete is the most sustainable material. He’s not kidding anybody.
There is a U.S. study that shows U.S. forest coverage has been actually increasing over the last few decades, not decreasing.
PM: When you have a demand for a product then the land which grows that product can produce an economic advantage if maintained. So, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [of the UN] recommended that we increase forest land, increase the growth on this forest land and increase the use of wood from this sustainable forest land as the best mitigation aspect for climate change. This was in its 2007 report and was reiterated in 2013. If forest land is able to produce an ongoing, consistent economic value to the landowner, you will keep it as forest. But people say we are not going to reuse that land, it gets cleared and then we are going to grow wheat or canola or convert to ranch land. Not so.
The more you use something, the more valuable it becomes so there is an opportunity to increase the forest land base by having wood managed sustainably and used sustainably for buildings that reduce our impact, that provide economic advantage. Then that land will continue to grow wood. To me, the use of wood is enhanced because it is sustainable and because it can be renewed. That is why I shake my head at the IISD report. It just didn’t make any sense based on reality.
The Wood vs Concrete debate: flexibility and design
The ability to prepare off-site mitigates negative disruption of dense urban environments, an advantage touted by advocates of tall wood. In New York City, however, Marriott Hotels is building a 27-storey hotel and will assemble the top 25-storeys in 90 days using concrete modules with each room fully equipped and ready to go. Can wood compete at this height with this approach?
PM: Well, the Brock Commons’ structure was built in a university residential area. There is a coffee shop across the street. There are three residential towers nearby. There are condos right across from it. And when I was there several times, the noisiest construction was when the concrete pumper truck was there or when the metal roof that was being used on Gage Towers was being replaced. Both were louder than the assembly of the wood elements. Neighbourhood disruption for nine and a half weeks at UBC all over the summer when the students weren’t there was a real advantage.
What is the value of that? I don’t know. Do you have to pay for a permit for all the parking that is lost to the city? What is the cost to having a road shut down, etc., etc.? As we densify our cities, we don’t have staging places like an empty parking lot where we can stage materials, people, offices and construction safety rooms. So we have to be smarter. That is going to force off-site construction because it reduces the neighbourhood disruption, the noise, the dust, the traffic problems; but, that is universal for all materials.
I was not unhappy to see Marriott using a 24-storey prefab building. It means that they are open to it. And if they have to build a six or eight or ten story building, there is an opportunity for wood. So it’s not that the material was concrete if we have companies like this now recognizing the value of prefabrication.
I have a friend who works for the concrete sector and we get together every once in a while. We both agree we that as material sectors we would be better off to recognize that we are always going to compete for buildings. Most buildings could be built out of wood or steel or concrete or hay bales for that matter. But could we, instead of trying to knock the other person down, work together to ask what the best ways are? We all have an environmental ethic; we all have a consciousness around pricing and trade shortages. What is the best way that we should be building in the future? Is it going to be a hybrid-type building? Is it going to be wood, steel, concrete, aluminium, glass, plastic, copper? You name it. So we should be focusing our energies on enabling these buildings to be built faster, better and cheaper and not fighting each other over a market share that is really going to be driven by regulation and the wallet.
[Returning to the Marriott], the Treet building had all the windows installed and all the bathroom tiles, kitchen cabinets, refrigerators in place. Everything. It didn’t put in the furniture, the sheets and the hair conditioner [as planned with the Marriott] because these were market units not rental. In Norway, these units came from Estonia. Therefore, I think our efforts really should be focused on how can we, within our own domestic market, deliver what the customer is wanting and expecting and willing to pay for in the most efficient manner. Wood is going to play a role, concrete is going to play a role and steel is going to play a role. But if all of us think we are going to stick with site-build, we are all going to be into problem after problem because prefabrication is not going to go away.
Wood vs Concrete debate: Economic impacts
While Tall Wood advocates tout the positive impact of tall wood buildings in terms of economies of often distressed, wood-based communities, concrete advocates counter that this ignores how these and other like communities also rely on concrete related industries such as quarries, sand pits and ready mix plants. Do they have a point?
PM: I don’t think that a concrete job is any better or any worse, any more or less important than a wood job or a steel job or an agriculture job for that matter. They are all important because those are families. It is not so much that wood is out to steal the jobs from concrete. But if the concrete industry and wood industry are in their little boats fighting it out, the big ship will be sailing away as people adapt.
In terms of future conditions, 20 years ago most of the housing was single family, but now it is multi-family. That caused change. How many single family home builders adapted, how many went out of business, how many retired and how many persevered? So the jobs are important. All of those jobs in any material sector are important to Canada. We are a nation of resources and I think our task should be how we can make the best use of these resources to provide economic benefit to the workers and the country. Now that may sound like a political thing, but it is not. I came from the forest sector, I saw mills shut down but I also saw pulp mills get rebuilt so that they didn’t shut down.
There is always constant change and even concrete is developing new materials. That is going to create jobs; it’s going to cost jobs. You look at CarbonCure [Technologies] in Halifax. There are some in the cement industry that don’t like it because it doesn’t use as much cement. It uses sand, aggregate and water, of course, but it doesn’t use as much cement. Is CLT displacing timber and light frame? In some cases, yes. Does that mean it is bad for the wood industry? No, it’s a transition, it’s a shift. But I would never say that the concrete sector jobs are not important. To me that’s an emotive tactic that is really not in play because you are dealing with people’s lives and their families. So to build fear where fear does not need to be is wrong.
As a percentage of the economy, wood is currently important but not huge. Do you have economic analyses indicating the potential economic impact of tall wood for Canada?
PM: I don’t know that there has been an economic impact analysis on that. In Canada we have a little bit of a different situation because here people often say, “oh, if we all build mass timber wood structures, is there enough wood?” This is getting back to sustainability. There is only so much wood that will ever be allowed to be harvested in Canada. Just because there is a demand for more wood does not mean that the forest companies can go out and cut wood. The provinces will say this is how many tens-of-millions of cubic meters you are allowed to cut. Those [recent] forest fires, for example, affect our harvest levels. There is wood out there, but we can’t compromise the sustainability of the forest just because today we have a big demand. I think that the good economics around mass timber are in the secondary and tertiary manufacturing, assembly, design and performance sectors. That is where it’s going to contribute to economic activity, not in the primary sector.
I remember years ago the ongoing debate about shipping raw timber to Japan without doing value added manufacturing in BC. I think what you are saying is that it’s going to be in the value-added that you will see the biggest economic impact.
PM: I formed a value-added co-op in BC 20 years ago [B.C. Wood Co-op, an organization promoting B.C. made value added wood products] and this was for the last people who make sawdust – furniture makers, cabinet makers. I would love to see that the demand for high value and low value logs in BC is fully met by producers in BC. But that is not the case.
At one time, I also ran a veneer manufacturing company. I had to pay market price for the wood. So if I didn’t buy the wood at market price, there was somebody else who would. So I paid market price. I should not, as a British Columbian and therefore an owner of that resource, expect a subsidy so that I can do things here below actual cost. I want to see the best value for the resource. If that means that we need in BC to boost our value added sector by becoming the first and best customers, that’s great. But if somebody in the United States says “I’ll pay you $500 for that” and somebody in BC says, “I’ll pay you to $250,” who are you going to sell it to?
I would love to see that the demand for logs of all types in BC surpasses what we can deliver because we know how to use wood best. If we are the first, the best and the most proficient users of wood and we don’t have to sell overseas because we are our own market. That is likely not going to happen because we’re only four and a half million people in BC. But still, it comes down to the fact we have to be the first and best customers of that which is growing in our own backyard.
The federal government has the Green Construction through Wood Program. Is this a leg up for tall wood or does concrete also have its own public programs, etc.?
PM: I don’t know. I know that there are people within the government that have responsibility for the minerals and the metals. But I don’t know if there are any programs. It’s just not my bailiwick. Does the National Research Council have programs to say reduce the CO2 emissions of cement? I just don’t know.
Will the future more likely be a combination with concrete cores, basements and podiums and even concrete curtain wall, as is the case with Ban’s proposed condo in Vancouver?
PM: Remember, I said that I started a wood co-op for value-added 20 years ago. And I come from a collaborative outlook. I would rather build a team that is cooperating, collaborating and having equitable benefit than squabbling over something in a little pond when there are opportunities in a big pond. So I think the future will be that our buildings will of necessity be higher performance. That means energy codes with lower carbon requirements, etc. But that is going to require that the wood, steel, concrete and other material sectors figure it out together.
The amount of time and effort that goes into fighting each other for what kind of market transition, what kind of market shift has there been, I don’t know. I would say that with the six-story mid-rise there wasn’t a lot of concrete six-storey buildings being built because concrete wasn’t really cost effective until you got to about 9- or 10-storeys. But every one of those mid-rise buildings had a concrete platform, foundation, parking area, etc. So was that an increase in the concrete market share because you are allowing six-story wood buildings that would not otherwise have been built?
You know, we have to look at this from a sincere collaborative perspective. What is the best way to build a school? What is the best way to build a hospital? What are the best materials that meet all of the criteria that we have now imposed? I think that buildings are going to be hybrids, are going to be composite buildings. I think that there’s going to be a growing demand for wood because of some of its contribution to better performance such as its better thermal transfer rates as it doesn’t conduct heat or cold as well as steel or aluminium. It’s renewable, but it’s not perfect. We talked about fire, we talked about durability. It’s not a perfect material any more than steel or concrete is.
The future will be higher performing buildings, greater attention to both embodied and operational impact. It will be hybrid tall building structures that will be composite designs and more multi-family residential as opposed to single family homes. I think there is an opportunity for commercial and low-rise buildings that can be prefabricated off-site. That to me is where the future is right now. The dynamics of urban intensification, trade shortages, environmental impacts and cost and speed of [construction] are the questions that we have to ask. Wood is ready for it; are the other sectors?