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NEWS: U of T builds tower out of structural timber (Mar. 2024)

April 7th, 2024 · No Comments

Resurgence of sustainable wood beams and columns 

View looking northwest across Varsity Field at a rendering of the new timber tower under construction.

By Ammara Khan

The University of Toronto is currently in the process of constructing the tallest academic timber building in the world, predicted to be complete by mid-2026. 

The new build will be located near the intersection of Devonshire Place and Bloor Street. The top five floors of the building will be home to Rotman’s specialized executive education programs. Other floors will also allow the faculty of kinesiology & physical education to “expand its work as one of the world’s top-ranked sports science programs of its kind,” according to the University of Toronto’s press release. 

Patkau and MJMA were the lead architectural firms working on this project. For their work on what is billed as the Academic Wood Tower, they were awarded the Canadian Architect Award by Canadian Architect Magazine in 2019. 

Roy Cloutier, a member of Patkau who works on this project, said that while it will be a record-breaking building, it will also act as “a flagship example of the University’s sustainable-building innovation programs.”

Cloutier said that the architects originally planned for the structure to be made of steel, but then proposed to switch it to mass timber, which the university was all for. 

“Our goal was to make sustainable design a core, visible part of the everyday experience of the building,” said Cloutier. “What we’re hoping to show with this project is that beauty, joy, health, and more don’t need to be in competition with performance measures, as is sometimes thought. Instead, when designed with care, they can be a direct result of them.”

Cloutier also talked about carbon sequestration. “Trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. When they’re harvested and turned into lumber, that carbon is stored in the building rather than released into the atmosphere.” 

According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Climate Portal, materials such as steel and concrete produce the most emissions from construction today. They state that “both of those materials cause significant greenhouse gas emissions, because their production typically involves burning fossil fuels to create high industrial heats.”  

Research shows that the timber building will offset approximately 70 per cent of the carbon emitted during the construction of the project. “This places it well below even the most stringent embodied carbon targets of the Canada Green Building Council,” said Cloutier.

Timber was selected not only to be as sustainable as possible but also to be visible and displayed in the building’s design. The building features sustainable technologies beyond the use of timber, for example, controlling how the sun hits the building. Cloutier said, “At the south facade, horizontal ribbon windows use sunshades to control the direct light in the offices, shaped to allow warmth in the winter while keeping it out during the summer.”

Harry Xu, a passionate environmentalist, student of environmental sciences, and president of the environmentalism student club Regenesis Scarborough at the University of Toronto, spoke about how they perceive this recent sustainable building project. 

“Wood is a very traditional, accessible, and environmentally friendly material to use in history,” said Xu. “There are wooden historical buildings from many cultures that are still standing today.”

Despite this, they brought up some concerns in terms of the ethical factors, as well as environmental impacts. 

They highlight the importance of thinking about the origins of raw materials used in construction of the tower.

“It depends where they source the materials from and how ethically, in terms of the labouring, were the materials sourced. It could be sourced from a remote location. In that case you wouldn’t necessarily destroy the local forests but could be costing the forests of other places around the world. You cannot benefit yourself at someone else’s cost.”

The University of Toronto released a press release that stated, “The tower’s timber is homegrown, originating in Western Canada.”

Xu also said, “There is no doubt that wood is a renewable material, but you really have to look at the timescale when it comes to the term ‘renewable.’ It could take centuries for a nice forest to be grown naturally.”

The sustainable Academic Wood Tower was built with some of those concerns in mind. 

Cloutier said, “Instead of cutting down old-growth trees to make timber beams as was once done, now we can harvest younger farmed trees, cut them into 2x6s, then laminate those together into larger elements.”

The use of timber in architecture is not entirely new. Echoing what Xu said earlier, Cloutier shared, “It’s always been there in a sense! Many of the oldest and most loved buildings in the world are built of wood in one form or another.” 

“More recently (over the past 50 years or so), the timber industry has developed a number of innovative technologies under the banner of ‘mass timber.’”

In order for the timber industry to become more sustainable, technologies like the ones used in the Academic Wood Tower have spread “over the last twenty or so years,” said Cloutier.

Not only is glue laminated timber more environmentally conscious, it also comes with technical properties.

“It’s strong, light, and dampens sounds well. Perhaps ironically, it’s also highly resistant to fire due to the char behaviour of larger timber members, as recent studies and testing have shown,” said Cloutier.


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