In 2014, the province announced significant changes to the Ontario Building Code (OBC), including allowing for new wood frame buildings to reach a height of up to six storeys. Since the updated regulations took effect last year—increasing the maximum height of office and residential structures by two storeys—many predict that the relaxed height limit will contribute to a marked increase in mid-rise construction throughout Toronto.
For Toronto's urban geography—which sometimes seems caught between the extremes of high-rise density and and low-rise single family homes—the possibility of adding relatively affordable mid-rise density on an accelerated construction schedule and in a minimally intrusive way has definite appeal. While it has taken the development industry some time to adapt to the new regulations, the Toronto area is now about to to see the first of its new, taller wood-frame buildings begin to rise. To get a better understanding of the possibilities, advantages, and challenges of wood-frame construction, UrbanToronto spoke to Quadrangle Architects' Marco VanderMaas, a self-described "wood fanatic" and a leading Canadian expert on wood-frame design.
Quadrangle is responsible for the designs of both Hullmark's 80 Atlantic—the first commercial property to be built under the new guidelines—and Fieldgate and Hullmark's Heartwood The Beach, which will be the first 6-storey residential project built in Toronto following the OBC change.
In the footsteps of Quadrangle and Great Gulf's 4-storey Hot Condos in Mississauga, the 37-unit Heartwood The Beach sees Quadrangle lead the way in designing the first of Toronto's taller new timber-framed projects, with interior renderings of the project reflecting an aesthetic that VanderMaas ascribes to the "warm and welcoming ambiance of wood."
While relatively tall wood-frame buildings have been common throughout much of Toronto's history, VanderMaas explains that "the previous 4-storey height limit for wood-frame buildings was rooted in the fact that early-to-mid 20th century fire ladders were about four storeys high. Following the great fires that destroyed much of Toronto in 1849 and 1904, the security measures governing construction and fire safety were tightened along with an expansion of fire services, and followed by the publishing of Canada's first National Building Code in 1941."
Framing the issue in its historical perspective "helps us understand how different today's context is, and how outdated the regulations were," VanderMaas adds. "Of course, modern firefighting technology allows ladders to reach a far greater height than four storeys, not to mention all the other improvements in firefighting, while any wood-frame projects are legally mandated to meet the same fire standards as other buildings, featuring modern sprinkler systems and much-improved materials and engineering."
In terms of the disruptive and often long-lasting community impacts that often accompany construction, wood-frame construction is able to deliver "an accelerated schedule with minimally disruptive effects on the community. Very little room is usually required for staging, so wood structures can often be fabricated much quicker than concrete, leading to far fewer street closures."
Though relatively tall wood-frame buildings are still considered somewhat avant-garde in Ontario, VanderMaas is quick to remind us wood-frame 'skyscrapers' are "common in many parts of the world, with Scandinavia and the U.K. embracing the possibilities years before Ontario." Closer to home, Quebec City is now building Canada's tallest wood-frame tower, with the 13-storey Origine set to rise to a height of 40 metres.
"As a natural, renewable resource, wood also has advantages over concrete in terms of sustainability," VanderMaas adds. "Timber is also a resource we have in plentiful supply across Canada, and as the industry adjusts to the new regulations, we can expect a boost to local manufacturers."
"Ultimately, though, wood-frame construction is most valuable as a way to help make more complete communities." In this regard, more efficient mid-rise buildings can help introduce modest density increases to urban neighbourhoods, "creating more inclusive and livably-scaled communities." Recognizing that the future of city-building involves more than concrete skyscrapers, VanderMaas argues that wood-frame buildings are perhaps most impactful as a tool to make "happier cities."
However, while wood-frame buildings look set to become increasingly popular throughout the GTA and beyond, some critics have raised concern regarding the potentially inferior sound insulation offered by these structures, and particularly residential buildings where quiet is a greater priority. "It's certainly an understandable concern," VanderMaas tells us, "but the kind of sound insulation offered by many wood-frame buildings is, I think, easily comparable to what we see in other types of properties."
"But I don't want to sound like I'm dodging the question," he continues. "Yes, living in a wood-frame building can be louder than living in a concrete building, but I think that living with noise is part of accepting the realities of urban life. I grew up above my parent's store in the Netherlands, hearing—and loving—the bustle downstairs. Ultimately, accepting that entails a change in how we conceive of urban environments. We need to accept that a healthy city has noise," VanderMaas concludes. In other words, to embrace the noise that might come with wood-frame buildings entails embracing a fuller reality of the city itself.