Jan. 20, 2020

Skyscrapers built from wood an exciting – but evolving – concept

Architect Russell Acton provides insight on tall wood structures in Canada
Keep it simple, at least for now
Keep it simple, at least for now

When Brock Commons Tallwood House opened in 2017, the new student residence at the University of British Columbia stepped into the architectural spotlight as the world’s tallest mass wood structure built at the time.

The 18-storey “woodscraper” stirred excitement in the fields of architecture and research, marking a Canadian milestone in a new era of sustainable construction practice.

However, as exciting as new products may be, industries like the construction and building industry need time to evaluate the product and explore possibilities through case-by-case scenarios. While new technology is explored in academic labs, technological evolution happens at a slower pace during the product development phase.

Today, the key to completing new tall timber structures in Canada is “keep it simple ...  at least for now.”

That was the message from Russell Acton, a Vancouver-based architect and founding partner of Acton Ostry, pictured above, who has been working with wood architecture for more than 25 years. He spoke to Calgarians as part of the Design Matters lecture series hosted by the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at the University of Calgary.

Industry and policy catching up

The work of Acton and his team on Brock Commons placed them at the forefront of wood design in Canada. Although wood design on such a scale is the leading edge, Acton said the industry and policy aren’t there just yet. 

“The media is claiming wood to be the future, the most sustainable building product out there. It sequesters carbon, it’s a renewable resource, engineers boast about the structural properties, its efficient use of material and reduced construction times,” said Acton.

But he also emphasized that with every new piece of exciting technology, there are hidden incidents waiting to happen. To mitigate many of these potential problems, design requires further simplicity and continuous iteration to get to best practices.

Acton's lecture opened the MASS TIMBER exhibit at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape.

Acton's lecture opened the MASS TIMBER exhibit at the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape

Alexander Mayhew

Learning from concrete and steel industry

In his remarks, Acton reflected on the concrete and steel industry, and how far these materials have progressed and evolved since the first skyscrapers in Chicago took shape. As more and more buildings are erected, and different structural systems are designed and implemented, the industry has gained progressively more best practices on how to work with these materials.

As mass wood design emerges as a trend, our experience and knowledge of the material is limited to the past decade. The industry is still understanding the properties of wood and its relationship to moisture, for example.

Limited information available so far

Emily Epp, a Master of Architecture Student, says she’s been interested in working with exposed wood in many of her architectural designs but finds there is limited information and example projects to guide her in how to effectively use wood in her graduate studios.

“You can get a glimpse of the CLT (cross laminated timber) connections from the one- to two- storey projects but do these same details change when working with a six- to 10-storey building?” she asks.

Acton said the future of tall buildings may be a hybrid of components using concrete, steel and wood. While wood was the main material used throughout the new UBC residence structure, the wood was concealed behind drywall and concrete topping. “At this point in time, a monolithic (uniform material) wood building just doesn’t make a lot of sense because of its lack of affordability and the difficulties of using wood when some components would just be more effective in metal and steel systems.” This would, he said, maximize efficiencies and minimize environmental impacts. 

More time for product development

Although the research is clear on the benefits of wood design, the experience in implementing these projects is lacking major research and development. Engineered wood products like glulam, laminated veneer lumber, and cross laminated timber have been on the market for some time but the current industry — from construction to policy to architectural design — is still learning and experimenting how to implement these materials into tall buildings today and in the future.