Key to Wood High Rise Buildings is Manufactured Building Components

Originally published by: Vancouver SunFebruary 3, 2015

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The best way to build more tall wood buildings — and boost a higher-value wood products industry in British Columbia — is to manufacture them in factories, an audience of industry professionals heard during a recent symposium in Vancouver.

Pre-fabricating sections of houses in factories to be assembled on home sites is not a new concept, but builders are increasingly using pre-fab to make the construction of bigger buildings more efficient, and wood is a material particularly suited to its techniques, said Lynn Embury-Williams, executive director of Wood WORKS! BC, the symposium’s host.

“We’re promoting the use of wood in projects, and wood lends itself really well to being manufactured into components,” Embury-Williams said.

Wood WORKS! gathered 185 architects, engineers, builders and fabricators together at the Vancouver Convention Centre to hear builders from the United Kingdom, Austria and Finland, who have more manufacturing experience than Canadians, discuss what they’ve been doing with pre-fabrication techniques in wood building construction.

They weren’t talking about the two-by-four wood-frame construction typical of B.C.’s housing sector, but what the industry refers to as “mass-timber” structures, where engineered wood components such as glue-laminated timbers and cross-laminated panels, manufactured out of regular lumber, replace the steel and concrete in traditional commercial construction.

In the U.K., for instance, builders have built some 320 mass-timber buildings in the last decade with pre-fabrication techniques proving valuable in countering the limited access and space at construction sites in cities such as London, according to Liam Dewar, director of the construction firm Eurban Ltd.

“Off-site (manufacturing of components) is considered a good way of delivering quality on-site,” Dewar said. And the speed at which such assemblies can be built is also a major advantage for developers on time-sensitive schedules.

The U.K. market has picked up speed, with 160 of the buildings being built within the last four to five years.

Dewar added that the U.K. market is still limited by the element of the unknown, and builders have to “null the risk of doing something new.”

Other presenters shared similar experiences, with Finnish delegate Mikko Viljakainen, managing director of the Finnish Wood Council, referring to the “Renaissance in Finnish industrialized timber construction” in the title of his presentation.

Dewar noted that Canada’s access to the raw material for wood construction makes it an ideal place to adopt more wood construction.

“Here, the resource is available; the question is, why isn’t it happening?” Dewar said.

Developing higher-value engineered wood products, which make more intensive use of the lumber coming out of the province’s forests, is seen as a key strategy to cope with the expected reduction in timber harvests expected to follow the mountain pine beetle infestation that devastated interior forests.

B.C. does have its leaders in the field, said Jim Taggart, one of the symposium’s moderators and an instructor of architecture at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.

Companies such as Penticton-based engineered-timber manufacturer Structurlam Products LP and Delta-headquartered StructureCraft Builders Inc., which is now expert in methods of pre-fabricating wood building sections for assembly on site, have been at the forefront in the province, and both had a presence at the symposium.

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