Professionals from around Toronto and the GTA gathered for an evening at the end of November to talk about a shared obsession between them all: wood. Hosted by the Toronto Society of Architects, a panel of experts made the pitch to the audience that changing the Ontario Building Code to allow six-storey buildings reinforced with wood could be a huge step towards increasing density along Toronto's Avenues.

Urbanspace, 401 Richmond, TSA, TorontoPeople gather in the Urbanspace Gallery in 401 Richmond before the forum begins. Photo by Eddie LaRusic

“There's huge planning pressure for density and population growth along the Avenues”, said Richard Witt, Principal of Quadrangle Architects Ltd. Within the Urbanspace Gallery inside the historic wood-framed 401 Richmond, Witt moderated an esteemed panel of individuals who wanted to see  Ontario allow mid-rise wood framed buildings. The panel was:

Toronto, Avenues and Midrise Study, Official PlanMap 2 of Toronto's Official Plan. The Avenues are highlighted in brown.

As Toronto grows, city planners have been looking toward the Avenues Official Plan designated mixed-use corridors – to help absorb some of the added density that Toronto requires to house the tens of thousands of new residents that are added each year. Toronto's Avenues and Mid-Rise Guidelines suggest that buildings approximately as tall as the street's right-of-way can provide both the density needed to support amenities like public transit, while allowing a gentle transition from these major streets to the low-rise residential that is often behind them. Most Avenues have a right-of-way of 20m, which therefore suggests buildings that are about six storeys tall (a 4.5m ground floor, and five 3m residential floors) as appropriate for redevelopment.

The take-up hasn't been bad, but one of the development barriers often cited is that the Ontario Building Code does not allow structures taller than four storeys to be framed with wood. Building a six storey mid-rise building then—as per the suggestions of the Avenues and Mid-Rise Guidelines—requires using a more expensive method of construction than wood, such as steel, for the building's frame. Allowing wood-framed buildings could be the tipping point that makes development on the Avenues (and perhaps other main streets, particularly in the suburbs) profitable enough to explore.

Paul Bedford, David Moses, Steven Street, Marco VanderMaas, Richard WittPanelists from left to right: Paul Bedford, David Moses, Steven Street, Marco VanderMaas, Richard Witt. Photo by Eddie LaRusic.

The four panelists each gave their take on how or why Ontario should embrace wood as a viable material to frame buildings.

Steven Street talked abouit British Columbia's experience in allowing six-storey wood buildings. Since the province changed their building code, approximately 160 projects have been built or are underway in B.C. “They created the opportunity,” Street said. “It took on a life of its own from the design community.” Street said that a change to the Ontario Building Code would not lower the fire-safety standards in such buildings; they would still be required to meet all safety regulations. He said the current regulations in Ontario are holding development back. “We have a Ferrari, but our allowed speed is only 18 miles per hour”.

“We're really lagging behind here in Canada”, said David Moses, as he showed some pictures of wood-frame construction in the United States and Europe. While most wood-framed buildings are thought of as “stick frame” construction, new "intelligent wood construction" technology, such as computer numerical control (CNC) machines have created new opportunities for builders and developers. Moses suggested that CNC machines are a “game changer”. Such technology allows builders to pre-assemble entire walls off-site, allowing for quick construction on-site. He said that there are some legitimate concerns with using wood, but they're not deal-breakers, and that part of any new technology involves working the kinks out, but that the private sector would be hungry for this kind of change.

Marco VanderMaas, Quadrangle, Brockport Systems, TorontoSlide from Marco VanderMaas's presentation, showing how CNC machines can help assemble buildings off-site.

Marco anderMaas said that adding mid-rise to Toronto's major streets was essential to keeping neighbourhoods vibrant. He presented an example of HOT Condos in Mississauga, which Quadrangle is using as a learning tool for building wood-framed mid-rise. While the HOT Condo buildings will only be four stories, the firm is using the experience to teach themselves the challenges and opportunities with working with wood.

The panel ended with the fiery Paul Bedford, who said it was "a no brainer" to make the change to the Ontario Building Code. “The potential of making a simple policy change to entice the private sector could have a huge result.” Bedford said that, when he was Toronto's Chief Planner, city staff found about 15,000 properties along Toronto's 160km of Avenues that had the potential for redevelopment, representing about 125,000 housing units. He said there was potentially a savings to developers between $20 to $25 per square foot (approximately a 10-15% savings) by allowing wood-frame construction in mid-rise buildings.

Bedford said that getting Ontario's Fire Chiefs on board would help make such a change a lot smoother. “If we can arrange this Fire Chief problem, I don't see any reason why this couldn't happen. Why do we have to be so ass-backwards?”

HOT Condos, Quadrangle, mid-rise, MississaugaRending of HOT Condos in Mississauga, a Quadrangle project that shows potential of wood construction to build mid-rise.

What do you think the panelists comments? Is wood what our Avenues need, or are there other issues hindering development on our main streets? Leave a comment below!