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Iconic Canadian skyline gets wooden makeover, here’s why

by O'Malley Isabella (Cilmate change reporter)

With the endless shades of grey concrete, roads, and buildings, downtown Toronto will soon become a little bit greener. The University of Toronto (U of T) is joining the global trend of using wood to construct buildings and towers, and recently announced plans for a 14-storey wooden hybrid tower made of timber and concrete to be constructed at the downtown campus near Bloor Street, and is scheduled to begin construction in 2019 and completed as early as 2022.

Designed by Patkau Architects and MJMA, the tower was originally planned to be built with steel, but after researching other options wood became a clear choice. Government incentives for wood construction, university funding, and philanthropic support all contribute to the feasibility of this project. « The more we looked at it, the more excited we got in terms of possibility” says Gilbert Delgado, U of T’s Chief of University Planning, Design & Construction.


Nature is part of Canada’s Heritage

Canoes, toboggans, snowshoes, and maple syrup are just some of the things that one may associate with forestry and Canada. The timber trade in Canada’s early history played a significant role in developing industry, the economy, and a sense of Canadian culture.

« We really want to capture that narrative [of Canadian heritage]” says Delgado, « and an advantage of a wood building is that the wood structure can be exposed, and all these wood surfaces have a beautiful connection to nature.”


Better for the environment

Wood is the winner when it comes to sustainable construction materials – it is renewable, recyclable, locally abundant, releases less carbon emissions during production compared to other materials, and stores carbon in its fibers even after being harvested, which can only get back into the atmosphere if the wood decays or burns. « According to calculations it would save 700,000kg of carbon compared to a steel building,” says Delgado.

Green technologies, such as renewable energies, are currently being considered for incorporation into the new building. U of T already features a number of buildings that are certified Gold on the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. Some of the technologies include geothermal boreholes, roof-top rainwater harvesting, demand-control ventilation, and dimmable high output fluorescent lighting.


Sustainable buildings can change our behaviour

Wood buildings offer more than a beautiful appearance – spending time in sustainable buildings can increase cognitive function and promote better sleep at night due to high air quality and sunlight exposure, according to the World Green Building Council. This wooden building could even promote increased environmental behaviours in those that spend time there.

In a study from the University of British Columbia, students in a sustainable building recycled more than students in a regular building. « The recycling behaviour wasn’t related to the students’ knowledge, attitudes, intentions, or values, it was simply being aware that they were in a highly sustainable building, which seemed to have significant behavioural consequences,” explains Dr. John Robinson, Professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs and the School of the Environment at U of T. « That’s fairly crucial for implications of urban design and building design – the design of these things can change behaviour,” says Dr. Robinson.;


Extinguishing worries of fire risk

The concept of a massive wood building may spark concerns about fire safety for some.

« All buildings have to meet the National Building Code of Canada and the Ontario Building Code, no building will be built if it is not safe to code” explains Robert Wright, U of T’s Dean of Forestry and associate professor in the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. « Timber has the ability to char on the outside which slows down the burning process – it’s not that it won’t eventually burn – but it meets all of the fire code requirements for material in buildings. This is a conceptual shift for a lot of people.”

Toronto will likely see an increase in extreme weather, such as wind storms, heavy rainfall, and record-breaking temperatures as a result of climate change. Wright explains that a wooden tower will be able to withstand increasingly harsh environmental circumstances just as well as any other building. « They have been tested against traditional problems of seismic events, fires, and they perform just as well as any other construction material. They have one other advantage – when you use timber it can be the finish of the building inside, you don’t have to cover it up and it can be quite beautiful.”

Despite the wood tower not actually being green, this development is an example of how Toronto is embracing environmental living – last year George Brown College announced an international design competition to create a 12-storey timber building on campus.


Photography Credit
© All renderings courtesy of MJMA and Patkau Architects.


Published on 16 November 2018