Through advancements in technology, building codes and engineered wood products, developers and designers across Canada are discovering the benefits of using mass timber for a range of multi-family residential buildings. And given wood’s environmental and carbon lock-in advantages there may very well be no better time.

Mass Timber Trends Taller

On September 30, the Woodrise 2019 conference officially opens in Québec City (Canada), bringing together architects, engineers, builders, policy makers and building professionals from all around the world to explore the ever expanding possibilities of wood, as a sustainable, renewable building material. As these experts gather in one of Canada’s oldest cities, we thought it fitting to explore some of the latest innovative timber-built multifamily projects popping up across the country. Taller timber and wood-frame hybrid designs have given these standout projects a unique appeal to Canadian homeowners while offering developers a growing number of advantages.

Origine: Thirteen-Story Multi-Family

In historic Quebec City, located along Canada’s St. Lawrence River near the confluence with the St. Charles River, rises a 13-story tall wood residential building, Origine, home to 92 units ranging from studios to five-plus room apartments. The building rests on a reinforced concrete platform, while wood anchors the second to thirteenth floors, with a structure that is built entirely of solid timber. The bearing and shear walls, stairwells, elevator shaft, floors and roof framing are built of cross-laminated timber (CLT), glue-laminated timber (glulam) posts and beams complete the structural system.

Origine Mass Timber Under Construction

MASS TIMBER GOES MAINSTREAM |  Against the backdrop of the Quebec City skyline, a trades person works to complete Origine, a 92-unit 13-story taller wood condo constructed using cross-laminated timber (CLT). It’s part of an ever-expanding roster of mass timber multifamily projects across Canada, signaling a new generation of urban homes that take full advantage of the capabilities of this eco-friendly engineered wood product. (Photos courtesy Nordic Structures | Photographer: Stephen Groleau)

The pure timber construction of Origine meant a lighter-weight building, making it possible to build taller on the banks of the Saint Charles River. To be more precise, the structure weighs half of what a similar building in concrete would weigh. This gave the project at least six additional stories not possible with conventional steel and concrete construction. All in all, this means more residential units at a lower cost per unit for developers.

Origine Interior Exterior

LIGHT AND NIMBLE | The pure timber construction of Origine meant a lighter-weight building, reducing foundation costs and making it possible to construct a taller structure on a terrain with low bearing capacity. And in some instances, mass timber is left exposed, to add warmth to interiors and common spaces, as is the case in Origine’s entry lobby. (Photos courtesy Nordic Structures | Photographer: Stephen Groleau)

A second benefit, and a reason increasingly cited by developers, is timber’s environmental advantage over steel and concrete. While the bottom line is always an essential consideration, market research is beginning to suggest that healthy, sustainable buildings could boost sales and lease rates. And more and more wood can be sourced regionally and closer to the construction site, helping boost the local economies while at the same time using less energy than other materials to manufacturer.

Wood uses photosynthesis to capture and sequester COfrom the atmosphere. The 33486 ft2 (3,111 m2) of wood in the Origine structure sequestered 2,295 tons of CO2 and prevented the emission of 1,000 tons of equivalent CO2.

A third advantage of wood lies in the speed at which the structure can be erected. The wood pieces can arrive pre-machined on the building site, ready to be mounted, and there is no need to wait for the concrete to cure for the other trades to get to work. It took only four months, to erect Orgine’s wooden structure, for a total work site duration of 16 months from the excavation date to the final finishings. According to the architect Yvan Blouin, a project of the same scope in concrete would have likely taken four to six months longer.

Arbora: Eight and Nine-Story Mixed-Use Multi-Family

Less than 200 miles (300km) from Origine, resides one of the largest residential projects ever constructed with CLT. Located in Montréal’s Griffintown, the project Arbora includes three buildings of eight and nine stories, one of the biggest of its kind. In total, it has 434 residential units that are divided into strata lots, rental accommodation and townhouses, along with retail space.

Arbora Interior Timber Post and Beam

WARMING UP | The large-scale Arbora project in Montréal features exposed timber post and beam construction giving the sleek modern apartments a uniquely warm and inviting feel. (Photos courtesy Sotramont)

Not unlike Origine, the project benefited from the use of prefabrication and tight tolerances. Timber components were precut to the required dimensions, and then shipped to the site from a local plant in Chibougamau, Quebec, with openings for doors and windows, using computerized numerical control (CNC) precision machinery

On average, the Arbora was erected at the rapid rate of over 1800 ft2 per day (170 m2 per day).

With its three eight-story buildings, Arbora’s mass timber design is unprecedented in its size and features an exposed wooden post-and-beam design, a unique draw for buyers. Generous open floor plans and nine-foot ceilings complement the timber’s warm aesthetic. Wood-frame and mass timber construction offers sustainability, value and cost-savings for this large-scale multi-family condo and rental complex featuring studio, one and two-bedroom suites.

Double Feature: Mass Timber & Light-Frame

Mass timber and light-frame are proving to be a fitting and practical duo. While technological advancements have enabled taller wood construction, mass-timber products combined with traditional wood-frame construction, are also offering new design advantages, embraced by architects and developers looking for new ways to set their project apart from the pack.

Virtuoso: Six-Story Multi-Family

Conventional wood construction has long been favored by Vancouver-based developer Adera Development Corporation, and the firm saw an opportunity to use mass-timber prefabricated construction in its Virtuoso building located on the campus of the University of British Columbia. The building’s construction method uses a CLT floor system, essentially substituting a slab of concrete with a slab of wood. Because CLT can serve as floors, walls and ceilings, it offers the opportunity for exposed wood to add warmth to the interiors, a major selling feature for the developer.

Virtuoso Mass Timber Light-Frame Hybrid

DOUBLE DUTY | Adera’s Virtuoso project took advantage of the best of both mass timber and light-frame construction in this breakthrough project.

Eric Andreasen with Adera says such construction methods will become more commonly used, especially for projects of this scale. After the success of Virtuoso, Adera went on to complete a 179-unit six story multi-family project called Crest. Before construction began, the developer had already sold 150 units.

Legacy on Park Avenue: Six-Story Multi-Family

Another notable example of hybrid design is Legacy on Park Avenue in Langley, British Columbia, just 25 mi (40 km) east of Vancouver. Currently under construction, the design of the building features curved “flying” balconies, made possible with the use of CLT panels.

Legacy Park Avenue CLT

MAKING WAVES | A unique curvaceous design, made possible using CLT, is setting this six-story all-wood multi-family project apart from conventional condo designs.(Photos courtesy Keystone Architecture & Planning + JMC Properties)

According to Steve Rempel, partner of MDM Construction, the speed, fit, and finish of the CLT panels cannot be matched in conventional framing alone. But when combined with traditional wood construction, the materials’ ability to span in two directions at the same time have opened up new structural framing possibilities, allowing them to bring projects like Legacy to life. There are 69 homes within the six-story development, including two-and three-bedroom condominiums. Rempel’s firm released a time-lapse video this summer of the project under construction.

The Future is Wood

The story of taller wood buildings in Canada can be traced to Brock Commons Tallwood House, once the tallest mass-timber hybrid building in the world (most recently eclipsed by Norway’s Mjøsa Tower). Built as a student residence for the University of British Columbia, the 175-foot-high (54 meter) structure is comprised of an innovative and efficient system of Douglas-fir glulam posts that directly support CLT floor panels without the need for downstand beams.

It took less than 70 days to erect the main structure of the building. The mass timber components prefabricated locally in Penticton, British Columbia, were delivered to the construction site in Vancouver on a “just in time” production schedule. As a break-through project, its completion played a role in the recent changes to Canada’s building code that open more opportunities for building taller with wood.

And the story of mass timber multi-family construction has just begun for Canadian developers looking to build more and taller with wood. An ever-expanding roster of projects on the boards suggests this trend will only continue to grow.

Examples include a 12-story Passive Haus-certified residence, Corvette Landing, in Victoria; a $1.3 billion Google-backed master plan in Toronto that contemplates a neighborhood constructed entirely of mass timber; and a 40-story residential mass timber skyscraper in Vancouver, dubbed Canada Earth Tower.

Canada Earth Tower Rendering

TIMBER TRENDS TALLER | Canada Earth Tower leads the pack, as more and more developers across the country contemplate eco-friendly multi-family construction using mass timber. At 40 stories, the wooden skyscraper would be the tallest of its kind in the world. (Rendering courtesy Perkins & Will and Delta Land Development)

The latter of the three, proposed by Delta Land Development and designed by Perkins & Will, is jockeying to become the world’s tallest wood tower and demonstrative of the culminating enthusiasm to build taller with timber in response to a pressing environmental crisis.

“I want Perkins and Will to reach around the corner and create something on this site that is the best response known to man for climate change and buildings,” said Bruce Langereis, President Delta Land Development.

And for Langereis, along with a burgeoning number of developers, that response increasingly includes mass timber.