Could Toronto build a neighborhood of wooden homes?

Ever see a neat project in another city and wonder: could we do it here? Should we? We have too, and as part of an ongoing series we’ll be taking ideas from around the world and running them through the lens of Toronto.

Could a housing development built entirely of mass timber happen here?

Starting in 2025, the city of Amsterdam plans to embark on an ambitious project to construct a 10-block neighborhood of lowrise buildings made of wood.

According to a recent report from Bloomberg media, the 700-unit community that would house about 2,100 residents is to be called Mandelabuurt (which means Mandela neighborhood and is named after nearby Nelson Mandela Park) and would become the first Dutch area to be built from timber in centuries.

The idea for the project came after the Greater Amsterdam region committed in 2020 that by 2025 at least 20 percent of new construction in the area must have wood as the primary material, the Bloomberg article states.

For construction, wood is considered far more environmentally friendly than steel or concrete because wood actually sequesters, or holds in, CO2, whereas steel and concrete don’t. Wood is renewable because new trees can be planted.

Aside from the environmental benefits, there’s an esthetic advantage — proponents say wood buildings look great, inside and out.

In Toronto, the closest we’ve come recently to seeing a neighborhood made of wood or so-called mass timber — the term for engineered wood products that are large and solid beams, columns or used for load-bearing walls, floors and roofs — was Google sister firm Sidewalk Labs’ plan to build a high-tech “smart district” on the city’s waterfront at Quayside.

Those plans, which included several midrise to tall buildings made of wood, fell through when Sidewalk Labs left town after COVID-19 struck in early 2020.

Developers Dream and Great Gulf won a subsequent bid this year to develop several buildings on the 12-acre Quayside site, including what the developers say will be one of Canada’s largest residential mass timber buildings.

There are a number of wood buildings in Toronto — George Brown College has one on Queens Quay East and developer Hines is constructing an office tower nearby, while developer Hullmark erected an office building on Atlantic Avenue in Liberty Village, to name a few — and there are many in other parts of Canada including Montreal, which has Arbora, three 8-storey towers made of wood in a mixed-use development in the Griffintown area.

But a neighborhood entirely built of wood?

Experts in the industry say such a reality could happen soon here, within the next decade or so, as mass timber construction becomes more popular.

“There’s a long way to go, but the trend is pushing forward. A neighborhood of wood — I think in the next five to 10 years max we’ll have some really good pilot projects,” says Andrew Bowerbank, vice president of market development for the Canadian Wood Council, which represents the wood products industry in this country.

But others, like Bruna Giancola, the senior vice president with Tridel, caution that cost issues — the availability of mass timber and the resources required to create a “competitively trained labor force,” that can work with mass timber — remain challenges to be overcome.

Cross-laminated timber (CLT), glue-laminated timber (GLT) and glue-laminated timber (NLT) are the most commonly used nail forms of mass timber. They’re made by affixing or gluing together many layers of wood to form larger, more durable pieces.

In its report, The State of Mass Timber in Canada 2021, the Department of Natural Resources says mass timber buildings are highly resistant to earthquakes, offer natural thermal insulation, are inherently fire-resistant, and can be rapidly installed.

“Because mass timber can meet or exceed fire code requirements and can be manufactured in dimensions that are suitable for taller buildings, it is revolutionizing the ways that wood can be used, the report states.

There are about 480 mass timber projects in Canada, about 410 of them completed, the rest under construction or planned, according to the report.

Bowerbank, of the wood council, says the industry isn’t clear-cutting forests to produce mass timber, instead using selective harvesting methods — only using one percent of trees in the forest for construction and replanting every tree, for example.

“We’re taking care of our forests now. That’s what people have to understand,” he says.

There are about 20 manufacturers of mass timber products in Canada, many of them in BC

Element5, a Toronto firm specializing in the design, fabrication and assembly of modern wood buildings, built Ontario’s first cross-laminated timber producing plant, which is located in St. Thomas. (The plant also produces glue-laminated timber.)

Sarah Hicks, an Element5 spokesperson, says that for the wood industry collectively, a neighborhood built of wood, similar to what Amsterdam is launching into, is “entirely doable” because the supply chain is growing.

In terms of the drawings from the city of Amsterdam of what the Mandelabuurt neighborhood might look like, Hicks says the proposed housing seems to fall squarely within the “missing middle” density — lowrise apartments, stacked towns, multiplexes.

“In Ontario, we can already build multi-unit residential housing up to six storeys in wood under the Ontario Building Code, so there really aren’t any code limitations that would prevent the Amsterdam model from being replicated here, or anywhere in Canada, ” Hicks says.

(In its newly tabled housing bill, the province of Ontario will allow up to 12-storey mass timber buildings.)

Patrick Chouinard, a senior spokesperson for Element5, says one major challenge for the mass timber industry in Canada is the fact there are few architects and engineers who know how to design and engineer these buildings.

“Also, general contractors are used to building in a certain way. They know how to make money building in the way they’re familiar with. They’re reluctant to try new things and there’s a learning curve,” Chouinard adds.

Giancola, at Tridel agrees, but goes on to call mass timber “very exciting and new” adding, “we’re definitely going to see” more of these types of buildings and homes.

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