Opinion: Mass timber is the future of construction in British Columbia

Sep 25 2021, 12:43 am

Written for Daily Hive Urbanized by Karla Fraser, the director of construction for The Cape Group.

Mass timber construction is being embraced by architects and developers across British Columbia, with hundreds of wood buildings completed and more planned. The province is also enthusiastic about the material and recently announced that they will provide $4.2 million to assist the industry in adopting mass timber building systems.

BC is set to become a leader in the production and use of the material, even establishing an advisory council to provide advice and guidance for the industry. Cape Group adopted mass timber construction in 2018, seeing great potential for a variety of building types, including rental and market homes, as well as for commercial builds.

As the development and building industry strives to meet upcoming climate codes, and moves to progress to the most efficient and cost effective construction methods, factory- based mass timber building is the natural progression for building homes in Vancouver, and beyond.

Off-site construction, sometimes referred to as pre-manufactured building, means that parts of the home are assembled and built in a local factory and then moved to the site where the project is completed.

This model boasts a variety of important benefits. With labour shortages and struggles to secure top talent, moving the construction work to a safe, controlled factory environment reduces the risks associated with building onsite. This includes enhanced safety and controlled climate where workers no longer need to execute complicated construction tasks in winds, rain and extreme temperatures. According to BuildForce Canada, the number of BC construction jobs that will be unfilled due to labour shortages by 2028 is 7,900. A part of solving this is improving work conditions.

The off-site model also allows for increased quality control, and mass timber allows us to build a structure within millimetres of a perfect fit. This type of quality assurance enables teams to pre-manufacture a variety of building components off-site, months ahead of schedule, and install onsite later.

Unlike concrete’s requirement to site-measure building envelopes, windows, and cabinets, all of these features under the mass timber process can be manufactured in the factory before the structure is started. This speeds up a construction timeline by months and can save hundreds of thousands of dollars in re-work, as the details have been carefully measured and designed in advance.

With increased costs across the board, more quality control and tight building timelines are more important than ever. According to Statistics Canada, the cost of fabricated metal products and construction materials had increased 114.7% in May relative to January 2020, and the cost of glass had doubled.

Off-site construction also reduces the industry’s carbon footprint while eliminating a large amount of waste that is produced with onsite home builds. In the factory, materials are optimized to be used completely and transportation and packaging are reduced.

Vancouver community members are often speaking up about disruptions due to new home developments planned in their neighbourhood. With a substantial part of the build being done in the factory, noise, traffic, and pollution can be reduced, resulting in less impact on neighbours. Potential homeowners can also see great benefit from the model as factory standard ensures that every piece fits correctly, and that the building is sealed properly with excellent ventilation, providing a much more comfortable and quiet living space for home occupants.

As we learn more about the benefits of off-site construction, there is endless potential. With more education on mass timber as a renewable, sustainable, and cost-effective option, more suppliers and manufactures will ensure that the material, and method is more accessible.

This building model could be used to support projects in remote communities, where there are labour shortages and where builders often face extreme weather.

Multi family, commercial, office, and industrial projects could all benefit from building with mass timber in off-site facilities.

Ideally, we start to see more factories in areas across BC, making this method more accessible and affordable for projects in communities across the province. We are exploring ways to build and assemble more building components in the factory setting, further enhancing the vast benefits that builders, developers, communities and homeowners reap.

Looking forward, mass timber pre-manufactured building will change the way we build, providing benefits for the industry and community overall.

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