By Nicholas Sills
The northern gateway city of British Columbia, Prince George, is slated to build one of the tallest wood primary buildings in the world. This Wood Appreciation Centre has been discussed with possible heights between 6 and 17 stories, although the consensus usually lands on 10 stories, making it the tallest wood based structure in North America.
The nearest contender is a 9 story mid-rise in Vancouver, BC’s Yaletown district built out of Douglas Fir timbers in 1910. Building codes have since made it impossible to construct timber based high and mid-rise buildings; however, significant advancements in engineer modeling and deeper understanding of wood construction techniques have made this project highly viable.
This pilot project of heavy timber high-rise construction is an inspiration to all of Cascadia. Much of the modern economy of the Pacific Northwest was founded on resource extraction; with a rebirthed mentality of sustainability, many forest professionals wonder why we waste our forests on 2x4’s, pulp and paper, and other short-lifespan materials.
By constructing quality buildings with local materials, we go a long way towards a sustainable future for humanity in a social, economic and environmental encompassment. This building has a lot of mental stigma to overcome with public perceptions that may not be so accurate.
The largest public misconception about timber construction is that it burns and is therefore unsafe, this may be true for small dimension timber such as 2x4’s however larger dimension timber takes on a new classification known as heavy timber.
As a timber body burns, charcoal forms on the outside of the timber member, acting as a highly insulating protective coating; this easily allows heavy timber to meet fire code regulations and will generally surpass steel buildings in event of a fire. Another concern is the amount of timber used in building of this size, which can be a scary prospect, however; this is just one part of a step towards a sustainable future using local materials to their best applications.
Once we start building smart, long lasting buildings with various uses, timber works as a highly dynamic material which can be reapplied in many applications, completing an entire cycle in a chain. This building is made possible by CLT (Cross Laminated Timber), which has been present in Europe since the 1990’s. CLT takes smaller dimension lumber and combines it into monolithic slabs measuring up to 10’x40’ and up to 8” thick. These giant slabs are premanufactured and cut to specifications by CNC machines. This allows the building to be quickly erected, allowing for substantial cost savings in construction time and making CLT highly competitive with steel and concrete structures.
If the building is intended to be a green building meeting LEED or Living Building Challenge requirements, CLT construction quickly becomes most cost effective and sustainable choice.
This remarkable building is still waiting for final funding approval from the BC government; meanwhile, the city of Prince George eagerly awaits its arrival.
The project marks a leap forward into the forefront of timber engineering, an area in which Europe has traditionally led. These advancements in sustainable design make a great contribution to raising worldwide awareness of the Cascadian region.