Mass Timber: Issues and Opportunities

As the construction industry evolves to become inherently more sustainable, wood, particularly mass timber, will play an increasingly pivotal role. Mass timber is ideally suited to the ICI (industrial, commercial and institutional) market in the form of beautiful, structurally sound, code-compliant, and cost-effective solutions.

The Ontario General Contractors Association (OGCA) presented and hosted a webinar to their members about mass timber. "Mass Timber: Issues and Opportunities", which covered such subjects as: how it's being used, where it's being used, case studies, what are the challenges or mass timber and more.

OGCA Webinar on Mass Timber

The conversation that took place on January 25, 2023, with Matt Bolen (Principal, Architect, Edge Architects Ltd), Patrick Chouinard (Founder, Element5) and was hosted by Giovanni Cautillo (President, OGCA).

Watch the full Webinar Video Here

Topics discussed, included:
  • Introduction of mass timber
  • Overview of mass timber in the Ontario marketplace
  • How mass timber is being used
  • Where mass timber is being used and why
  • Address key issues head on including cost, Ontario Building Code, fire performance, insurance, durability, and moisture control.


Giovanni Cautillo, President, OGCA
The topic today is one that is of great interest to everybody in the ICI sector in construction simply because we have a plethora of individuals that have registered for the webinar, so obviously it is something that everyone would like to know about. I think the title is short and sweet yet to the point - "Mass Timber: Issues and Opportunity" and our panelists today are Patrick Chouinard (Element5) and Matt Bolan (Edge Architects).

Incidentally today Matt's birthday, and there will be a quiz afterwards for whomever can come in as to what his age is. We'll give out a prize at the end of this. Speaking about the structure of the webinar, anyone who has any questions please utilize the question and answer function. We will answer questions at the end, simply because a lot of them will be addressed throughout the presentation.

I know for a fact that Patrick and Matt have a very intense and very interactive kind of presentation. Speaking of presentations and our panelists I'm going to pass it over to Patrick to start us off.

Patrick Chouinard, Element5
Good morning sir. Good morning and thank you very much for the opportunity to present - and thank you very much for everyone who's decided to join us today.

What is Mass Timber?

Mass Timber building types fall into three broad categories:

  • The first is post and beam, where glulam is used for columns and beams, and then heavy timber panels form the floor structure to create the skeletal structure for the entire building.
  • The second mass timber building type is CLT panels. CLT panels are used both horizontally and vertically to form both the floor structure, the exterior walls, some of the interior walls with very little use of glulam.
  • Then the third is a hybrid-type much like what you see here - which is a steel building that uses CLT for floor slabs.

Mass Timber elements are varied, and there are a number of elements available in the marketplace today. So CLT - this stands for cross-laminated timber panels. These are massive wooden panels. In our case we make one that's 11.5 feet wide 53 feet in length, and about 15 inches in thickness. They are considered an environmentally-friendly alternative to concrete and they are structural panels.

Then there's glulam, which is used for columns and beams, followed by NLT which is nailed-laminated timber panels. And these are panels that are made up of dimensional materials two by fours, six eight ten and twelves that are nailed together to create panels. Then there's DLT - which is dowled-laminated timber which is the same as NLT, but instead of nails they use dowels to fasten the dimensional materials together. 

Then there's MPP which is mass-plywood panels. This is plywood panels on steroids, the same as plywood except much thicker and much larger. Then there's CLIPS - which stands for cross-laminated insulated panels. These are prefabricated panels that come prefabricated from the factory and they're used to quickly enclose the outside of a building.

Then there are BOXX panels, and these are CLT panels essentially, but they're hollow in the inside. They allow us to span greater distances than a typical solid CLT panel but cost effectively against concrete and steel.

And then we have RIBBED panels which are just like a BOXX panel, except there's CLT just on the upper surface rather and exposing the joists below. The connection to mass timber buildings are really quite simple, it's made up of engineered brackets, plates, hooks, concealed junctions, screws, dowels and adhesives. So, the buildings go together very quickly.

Mass Timber in Ontario  

We're in the midst of a revolution in the construction industry that began in Europe about 35 years ago, and landed on the shores of British Columbia and now has made its way all the way across Canada as well into the United States. It's characterized by buildings that are being prefabricated in high-tech manufacturing facilities and shipped to site where they are assembled rather than constructed in the traditional sense.

This building is the Student Residence at the University of British Columbia, and it's reflective of the future of mass timber. It sits on a concrete podium, on top of that sit the glulam columns that you see here on the left-hand side, and above that are the CLT panels for floor and roof structure. What's also interesting about this building is the use of these prefabricated panels on the outside - very much like our CLIPS panels - to quickly enclose the outside of the building this building. Standing at 18 stories, was rendered completely weather-tight in only nine and a half weeks.

Mass Timber is happening in Ontario in a big way, and this is a selection of some of the larger projects that are currently under construction, either recently completed or currently under construction in Ontario. Element5 was founded in 2015, and we've done approximately 80 projects to date. I've listed all of these here just to give you a sense as to where Mass Timber is used - in what industry sector and in what building typology.

  • So we have a fire hall here top left-hand corner.
  • This is a three-story hybrid office building, it's a steel building using NLT roof panels.
  • This is the next one is an extension to a library at Wilford Laurier University.
  • The next one is a health an Aboriginal Health Care Center in London.
  • Then we have a boaters pavilion in Orillia.
  • Bottom left-hand corner an office building in Quebec.
  • We've done quite a number of single-family homes and cottages.
  • And then everything from there up to the next project which is our largest project - it's an 80,000 square foot office building for the Toronto Regional Conservation Authority.
  • Recently we've been doing quite a lot in affordable housing, so the first one you see second from the right on the bottom is an affordable housing project for the YWCA in Kitchener which Matt will talk about.
  • The next one is a bit of a hybrid it's also affordable housing it uses CLT for the floor slab, but it uses light wood frame interior and exterior walls.
  • Lots of new projects that we're under contract to supply in 2023, and beyond so here we have top left-hand corner a daycare centre in St Thomas.
  • This is a veterinarian clinic in Michigan.
  • This is the next one, a golf club house also in Michigan.
  • We have a mixed-use building in Hamilton.
  • A student residence for the University of Toronto.
  • Then we have an Aboriginal School in Northern Ontario.
  • A photo museum in Cincinnati.
  • Two more mid-rise multi-use residential buildings.
  • And then the last one here is we just got a contract for - this little Portico on the outside of a university building in the United States.

So - Why Mass Timber?

The building you see here is called Ascent. It's the tallest Mass Timber structure in the world, and it's in Milwaukee. It's a 25-storey building it has 17-storey post and beam with CLT floor slabs, above eight storeys of concrete. This little graphic you see here, I've taken right off the developers' website and these are the reasons why they used mass timber and the result of actually building in this way.

So the first reason is they use mass timber because it's a renewable resource. In this case, there was 90% less traffic on the job site. It required 75% fewer on-site workers and it was built in 25% less time. From the environmental perspective, there's a major push to build and mass timber for environmental reasons, the concrete and steel Industries are responsible for somewhere between 12 - 14% of the carbon dioxide in the world today.

World population is growing from seven to nine billion over the next 35 years, and we know we cannot continue to build the way we've been building for the last hundred years. When we're building with wood what we're doing is we're leveraging our forests' natural ability to absorb carbon. And so when building with wood what we have done is found a systematic way of not only removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere but storing it in the form of these beautiful buildings. There's also an incentive to use mass timber for the aesthetic - many of these buildings are considered quite lovely. On the inside the upper row are the interior of residential spaces.

The bottom row are the interior of commercial spaces. And then there are the health and wellness benefits. Many biophilic research studies have been done that shows that there are health benefits associated with living and working and educating our children in environments where the occupants are exposed to natural elements, and as humans, we are just naturally connected to these types of spaces.

Issues Around Mass Timber

You asked to address the issues around mass timber, and the first question that always comes up is how much. So I thought I'd address that right away. A number of studies have been done that look at cost comparisons between mass timber, steel and concrete. This is one particular study that was completed in July of 2021, that looked not only at the cost differences between mass timber, steel and concrete - it also looked at the global warming potential or essentially the impact on the environment.

And I say this is true pretty much of every study - the results are always about the same. essentially what they're saying is mass timber costs the same as concrete and steel, but if you can if you can build in wood for the same price - but you have less negative impact on the environment, why not build in mass timber?

So with that I'm going to turn it over to uh to Matt Bolen with whom Element5 has worked on quite a number of projects together - so Matt?

Matt Bolen, Edge Architects
Thanks Patrick. So yeah I think very grateful to be here - uh not so grateful about the birthday shout out but I guess I'll carry on. This for us and I think picking up uh where Patrick's left off here, mass timber for myself professionally has been an interest of mine for about 20 years so I was you know 15, 15 years after the European invention or proliferation over there, um definitely came up has been on my radar. 

And then specifically, Edge Architects and our group for the last seven years has been really in tune and focused on mass timber and how we can design with it, and actually get it executed on built construction projects. So today what I want to go through, and again in a sort of a quick way is our pursuit, our firm's pursuit of executing mass timber.

Rapid Housing Response and Mass Timber

Next, I want to talk about a rapid rehousing response, and I know that this group specifically is it has more of an ICI Focus, but I think you know understanding the marketplace right now and the dramatic need for housing um that's obviously what's pushing a lot of  the construction industry generally, and that's what we're seeing even though our work is  broad - and covers a pretty broad range across you know all different sectors, you know that  the housing and a rapid housing response was for us ended up uh being our ticket to getting and realizing mass timber.

Next, within that I'm going to go to that first project that was part of that rapid housing response, which was the affordable housing project for YWCA that Patrick mentioned. And finally, just talk about some future directions for us and the industry as we see. So, what I want to start out with, is again keying in on some of  the projects that we worked on where we made our attempt to try and incorporate mass timber, where  we thought we had a client group and an overall building team, that was interested in the innovation, and interested in trying to analyze and assess what could best be used to meet the needs of the project.  

So these represent three in our firm's history and portfolio, and I'm just going to cover these off relatively quickly. Oh sorry Patrick, let me go back one. The first was a mid-rise building, infill building and as a lot of us know with that missing middle type of typology, understanding the most efficient way to build it is something that's really challenging. So we went through that exercise, mass timber was one of the final candidates that we chose as our structure for that - but ultimately due to you know market and supply back in 2017, we weren't quite there in terms of the client's comfort, and also ended up getting a pricing on a hybrid Hambro style concrete steel system that worked.

The next project - the "Glove Box" was started out as actually a smaller site, and we had this idea for re-interpreting using mass timber to, re-interpret brick and beam office in a contemporary way, with all the efficiencies of the Class A office demands that we had. Instead, the project scale and scope grew, which was a good thing ultimately - incorporated a Heritage building and just the gymnastics that needed to be done and the appropriateness of using mass timber, given some of the reinforcement that had to be done on the existing Heritage structure, it just again made more sense to go cast in place at that time on that project.

Then we had this "WOODin" project, which was our first introduction to Element5, who came on for it, as our design assist trade, and really helped us with a lot of the Innovative design and research and development on this project. We actually got funding through NRCan, through one of their programs, their "Green Construction through Wood" - to actually do all sorts of testing, that could help fill in a lot of the gaps and missing information in the marketplace around acoustic and vibration and strength, and you know just optimizing structure. So this one we thought, well this is going to be you know a slam dunk.

And as we as we go to  the next slide, we worked through that - we had a really good strategy, and then  as maybe some of us some of us know - oh and our strategy here as you can see - you  know we actually utilized Element5's Quebec - Ripon, Quebec's facility for building  full-scale mock-ups, testing both qualitatively and quantitatively, we're feeling very good we're scheduled to submit and make our permit applications in the Spring of 2020, and as some of us may remember right that also coincided with the time when a lot of us decided to move to a work-from-home model - I can't remember why that was again, maybe it's  just a post-traumatic stress of it all, having three kids at home.

But for that reason, obviously market demand on office at the time - dried up a little bit. So bringing that type of a spec office building to market didn't quite happen. So again, I don't want to focus here today completely on how not to execute mass timber - there is a good news story here  and we were able to achieve it - and why I bring up these projects where it didn't  happen - is because that actually informed us not just on an education and a knowledge base, but actually on a network that was essential in ultimately realizing our first mass timber project which we can see now  in the next slide. So going in - sorry just before the next slide, again a lot of that work and collaboration that we did, studies in not just conventional models as you can see on the right-side for multi-res development, but our work in the modular, volumetric modular, and then the work that I just discussed on the WOODin office building project that ultimately led us to the YWCA, or it's the local branch is YWKW transitional housing.

And for this project, it was based on rapid housing funding initiative, that had a very, very tight timeline, and also required some degree of modular construction - what they defined as modular construction. And although that does mean different things different to different folks, it was ultimately defined through the program as having some level of off-site prefabrication that was assembled on site. So obviously that worked for us on this project. Again, in addition to the modular, the specific timing around the phase of Round One of the funding, was actually a 12-month window from completion from the time of contract signed, to actual occupancy. Which for most of us and I'm sure there's a lot of eye-rolling on this call, especially with the knowledge base here in terms of the ability to get through approvals, through design, through tendering, through construction - that that was a pretty monumental ask at the time.

But through a very specific  design, build, response where we brought all of our trades, all of our consultants into the fold, (we were also ready for it a little bit early because we knew of the program, and some of the objectives of it), and so we were actually able to do this successfully on Phase One, and then as I'm going to get to in some of our next steps and future directions, we've actually been able to utilize that that same approach, that same team and mass timber as our primary structural resource on Rounds Two and Rounds Three of the funding. Round Three is active and currently on our plates right now.

So again when it comes to the fast track  process and more importantly the team, this is just a quick diagram that I want to walk through in terms of you know and that RHI funding which you can see up in the top right-corner and knowing that was going to be coming down, knowing that we had that network of folks who are who were interested, and who were tracking it - we ended up with Element5 -  and on the back of the relationship we had on our WOODin office building project we started down conversations about how can we come up with a solution that will be suitable to the needs of these types of users, not-for-profits you know supportive and affordable housing providers, and that would be efficient, and what kind of team would that look like.

From there, we ended up putting together that team, and as you can see specifically on the right-hand side here, the trades and consultants were so critical to getting involved early. And then also ultimately, as you can see the General Contractor, who we really needed - I mean we as Architects and holders of a certificate of practice cannot be constructors. So we knew that with the conventional CCDC 14, that a lot of these groups were going to be relying on for that turn-key approach and that fast-track approach, for the clients, that we would need a solid and reputable contractor to be able to take that on and take on that responsibility and work closely with. So we had worked on a number of projects with Melloul-Blamey, and they became a really great partner along with ourselves, Element5 and the rest of our trades and consultants to work that through.

Another key part of this, is as you can see here, the CMHC funding came in our two-tiered form of government, municipal government in the region of Waterloo. That funding came directly to the region, and then the region actually administered that funding to YW, and on top of that we had the city of Kitchener on the left who actually offered up the land - which was underutilized vacant land, city-owned. So that in and of itself, created a collaboration and a line motivation for everyone and the team - even at the approvals phase of the project that really paid a lot of dividends in terms of that fast-tracking process.

And then as is often the case, we also had a construction advisor a client rep in WalterFedy, who was another local reputable multi-disciplinary firm, who was again essentially part of the team and part of that collaborative effort that we worked on. So as you can see the degree of collaboration and communication required through the project was extensive and ultimately led to a lot of our success. Here is something we created in the early stages of the project, that just again was going to put that focus on what are the different stages and what are the different targets that we need to map out here and have everybody on the on the team understand.

So obviously first, was working through that planning and approvals process. In this case and utilizing the mass timber it was actually something that we needed to integrate not just the planning department, but actually the building department too and getting their comfort and in doing so what we ended up doing is pulling on Vortex as our as our Fire and Building Code consultant we were able to not just utilize their knowledge and their understanding - but again  their network of other projects. So although this was one of the first multi-res fully mass timber projects constructed in in the province and in the country that we're aware of, in this type of fast-track approach specifically, there was some other projects, one particular in Toronto that Vortex had also worked for, so there was already a basis of understanding with the Toronto building department and an alternative solution that was provided to them.

And we were able to again connect with them, start to open up that dialogue and exchange of information, and in fact not just do it between us and our and our consultant and our design and client teams, but actually we were actually able to connect the actual building departments, and the Chief Building officials to start to foster that. And that's something that really helped us through that stage as well, and we've continued to utilize that in other jurisdictions - making those connections.

Outside of that, you can see from our site approach and foundation design, it was very  much based on a simplistic approach - as most of us know if you start to get into very complicated underground parking structures and various things like that, you can really suck up a lot of the time of a project underground before you even get above and so that was a bit of a challenge in terms of making sure the design was very efficient and streamlined from that standpoint.

And then next we had you know the superstructure - and that's I think where mass timber and that prefabrication, the precision of all the CNC and all those fastening and connection elements that Patrick went through really did pay off. And then obviously you know the leadership of Melloul-Blamey on the last few pages five and six, was also really important and I'll get into a little bit of that here next. So I do want to show when it when it comes to particularly the superstructure, and how that worked, I think we do have a time-lapse here of the building going up so Patrick I'm not sure if you want to flip that on or if that's going to work for us here. Is that playing on your screen Matt? Uh not yet. But if not, we can probably follow-up with the link. So it's not happening, we can skip that Matt. Okay sure. Yep, just to keep it going.  

The structure itself was erected in under 20 days. That view that we had, and the time-lapse video that we show was really interesting and anecdotally, the Principal in the school that the camera was mounted on was amazed. He felt like one day you know and there was nothing, and the next day it was a building. So that was no question a key part of the process. But another part as Patrick spoke to briefly in terms of cost - that was that was another big factor, and it was in fact one of the reasons that we did go and decide to work with Malloul-Blamey and pull them on - was their understanding and knowledge of conventional forms of construction like this, where you know other non-combustible systems would have been used. Particularly something like a precast, or total precast building design - you know that would have met the same intent as pre-fabrication and modular in the definition. 

However, from a timing standpoint, you know we were at the time - we were waiting one year in a queue to be able to get you know the product. And for us obviously on this on this project with the fast-track nature that wasn't going to work. So, one of the big challenges in addition to just understanding the cost and you know is how do you do it in an apples to apples way - and that was something that we knew well, through some of those other projects that I talked about where we were comparing non-combustible and conventional Building Systems to CLT. It was always a challenge to wrap our heads around apples to apples cost-comparisons - so what we decided to do, is to specifically look at - in this case precast or hollow core plank design, and our understanding and our knowledge of how to do that well and efficiently, with optimal spanning ranges, with optimal panel thicknesses for shipping and installation and crane design and all those factors.

And we actually then, incorporated that into our design of the mass timber and worked specifically with Element5 and their engineering team on that. So as you can see here, what we were able to do through the design was come up with that same a similar optimal length range of a panel - however through Element5 and their new manufacturing facility out of St. Thomas, we also understood that they could do up to a 3.5 meter or almost 12 foot wide panel, and of course compared to that hollow core plank which is always 4 feet, we immediately realized with about the same thickness of panel,  we were able to do 3 times as wide, which there right off the bat we just cut the number of picks off of a crane into sight by a third.

So we knew that from a speed standpoint, and an efficiency standpoint, we were going to be picking up a lot of efficiencies there. Same too when it came on a 4-story building design, the max length of the panels which is about 16 meters, actually allowed us to turn them the other way and run them full length for our elevator and stairwell cores, and still meet all the you know, the building code definitions. But again, really try to wrench up that optimization and efficiency of things that way.  

One other thing from a design standpoint that really helped us, was we had a site that was quite narrow, and we'll see in one of the pictures that I'll go through at the end it had these sorts of sharp points on it that really made it challenging to lay out a typical conventional building slab. So as we can see here, you know typically in our multi-residential work and our conventional based work - we'd always be starting out with you know an 18-meter minimum with slab Residential Building footprint.

But in this case, there was two factors, one the site design necessitated that if we could narrow that building form, we would actually be able to better utilize the site - but on top of that, we actually had a client requirement that specifically wanted a small 400 square foot or less units - 350 to 400 square foot. So by actually narrowing that building, we were also able to accommodate that programmatic need, keep the building area down, and yet still provide the really important one-bedroom units they were looking for.  

On those one-bedroom units because this  specific project was tailored towards women battling homelessness - it was a rewarding experience for I think all of us involved, because we were you know knew that  the users of this building and as is the case and a lot of different municipalities and  jurisdictions with encampments and homelessness, you know we were taking people who were  specifically women - and women in vulnerable situations, and they were coming and moving into these.

And as you can see from our layout, with that narrow building footprint, we were actually still able to create a bedroom with a closable door - and that was actually something in terms of you know trauma and dealing with those sorts of things, that specific unit amenity was really important. In addition, we were still able to also accommodate barrier-free accessibility in our washrooms and movement through the kitchens as well. So a lot of those things were important programmatically for us.  

When it comes to again a big question is fire - we had a great fire and code consultant on the project in Vortex. The good thing I think from this standpoint, and we had known this from some of our previous experiences - there is a wealth of testing data that is available and understood and accepted and as again I won't speak to  it in detail, but I think you know and even some of the more recent changes to both the national and Ontario building codes that is you know, it's starting to become even more incorporated  into the codes themselves and that referencing of the CLT and mass timber is becoming more prolific.

So that I think, was just a matter of documenting. Again, there were some alternative solutions at the time of this project, where we had to just make sure that that referencing, the understanding of the testing and the certification standards for structure delamination, fire performance - all of those things were properly understood, and there was a proper level of comfort there with the building department and we  ere able to do that.

Next though was the  acoustics, and this was one that particularly again as there was a change to the building code from requiring STC ratings to ASDC ratings, that was a challenge that we did have to face, and unlike the fire issue we were talking about where there's a wealth of data, it's more just a matter of pointing to building departments to that data - in this case for the acoustics, there isn't a lot of data specifically around  assemblies where exposure of the product, of the mass timber product is had.

And so for us, particularly with that change in the in the designation of sound and acoustic performance, instead of having you know just be able to cut through a wall and say well that's my assembly and it meets - in this case we actually had to show that the entire room would perform, and when you had our goal of trying to expose as much of the surface of the product as we could to instill that sense of warmth and well-being and some of the biophilic advantages that come along with the product, it was really important to us to do that.

So that's where with our acoustical consultant we had to get creative, and frankly quite conservative on how we designed each unit to limit this - the spread of acoustic and sound from one unit to the other, and the way we were able to do that was to essentially checkerboard our unit finishes plan, where you either would get an exposed ceiling or an exposed wall. And that allowed us to again cut off sound on vertically across the transition of units, and horizontally across the transition of units in a way that ultimately met the satisfaction of our acoustical group consultant, who then provided our sign-off with the city.

It should be noted that since we've  done this project and subsequent others, we've done testing on each of these - so we are actually now in the in a position to be building that knowledge of testing and performance, which is showing that we will actually, we are actually performing better than expected and better than the conservative estimates, and therefore are excited and looking for more ways to pull some of this additional measures and expose more of the product. Both for cost-savings as well as again that sense of warmth and well-being. You can see that there.

Next in another again area of concern, for both clients and people and the team members that we talked about a lot, was just the moisture control. And I think one of the big takeaways knowing that this product project, was installed in September and to my mind that would have been September of 2020 or 2021, I guess.  And it was one of the wettest Septembers on record of course, so I had a few sleepless nights, but I think the great thing we had, we brought on RDH our as our building science and on-site consultant, so they had a lot of  experience working both with mass timber - and understanding, you know some of the challenges and  problems that will come back, particularly after a building is enclosed and occupied. So we have their knowledge base, we had their understanding of when and how to be testing iteratively throughout the process.

The great again, knowledge base that we had throughout all of our detailed moisture control analysis - was that the panels themselves even in a horizontal application, performed extremely well. They are the glues and the edge gluing specifically, and the fact that they're you know there's such a strong focus in the plant for moisture control - that once you get to site with a lot of the edge gluing of the actual product - again the water ingress doesn't really happen, and  as long as you're having a process on site with your construction team to remove  standing water, that's oftentimes heavily mitigated.

There were some in the photo here where you can see the plywood splines that connect - that was an area that did cause some challenges throughout the construction, and to the extent that in some cases  before we put roofing down in certain areas, we had to replace those plywood splines, because as we know plywood really sops up water and it's very difficult to get it out. I think from there, that's informed our process on subsequent projects, where we've made sure to - as those plywood strips are going down, they're getting taped and sealed in a way that doesn't allow for that sort of water Ingress over time.  

Finally, when it came to our envelope, there were different strategies on how we could approach this. There was a thought early, with this clip system that Element5 had come up with that could be a prefabricated, you know fully offsite, assembled and installed on site wall system. Ultimately, we ended up not going with that and we just had the actual exterior panels clipped on - and then we ended up doing a site applied thickened EIFS application, with a six-inch insulation. This was again very efficient from a time, from limiting the number of trades on site, o we were able to execute that very quickly and cost effectively.

Moving forward, I mean in our climate I wouldn't say that for us EIFS is always necessarily our preferred choice, but in this case through some of the resilient you  know, the low and high traffic coatings we were able to put on, and again through working with our envelope consultant with working with Dryvit, and their team you know, I think It ultimately was a very successful application and very high performing through the lack of thermal bridging and what have you.  

So again here, I mean when it comes to the BIM coordination and generally going back to some of those models and those collaboration models, we talked about above you know - BIM coordination throughout the project was really essential. But  ultimately it required that that trade level involvement not just in the design process, but even you know on site in the trades and you can see here we have Kurt our installer from Contract Framing right on the truck and a lot of us you know we're out there more often than we typically would have been, which for I think for myself and a lot of the group - the folks in our office was a really exciting part of the process - to feel more integrated into the whole overall process was great.

Here's a bit of an overall, you can see again the school and the public library in the background, you can also see that sort of nature of the site, and the strange geometry of it. But again, it did really work well in an area that is heavy populated, with lots of transit, and a really great use of some underutilized land in the city. Next slide.

I'm just going to flick through some of the pictures here in the next couple minutes slowly, that you can see. Again, we did have the canopy where we exposed that again that product, to get to create some warmth. The entrance, the columns themselves are Douglas fir, but the CLT panel that you see there, is the same CLT panel we used inside - actually the exact same dimension, we just pulled it out and used it there, that optimized 5-ply. But again, you can see the way that that helps to just create that sense of warmth and well-being for a building that's otherwise you know intended to be quite austere, and not overly high-end.

That as a commentary too I think, you know our experience over watching the CLT and mass timber projects come to life over the last number of decades, what we understood is that a lot of what we saw was high-end, or high profile institutional projects and all those are great and exciting one of the things for us in terms of trying to address the housing crisis, and also trying to promote the more widespread  use of the system and process, for some of the - again not just biophilic, not just environmental, but even efficiency benefits of the product is we thought that if we can get and showcase how it can be used in an application like this - you know supportive housing, affordable housing, mid-rise, those are all challenging areas to deliver, and typically not seen as utilizing high-end type of products.

So we realized that if we had this opportunity, if we could execute it here - the ability to transition that back out to either market rate housing, or office, or institutional, was going to be a much we thought, easier process, and I think  what we're seeing now in the marketplace, two years after the occupancy of this project - that's really you know, starting to be the case. 

Case in point to that, as you can see on this site that we just looked at, that is the 2nd phase - the 2nd building done through RHI Round Two, that will have occupancy sometime in February of 2023, and this was taken back in the Fall, so you can see that project also went up very quickly. That project was geared towards women and children. And again, maybe the testament - and without getting  political at all, this was the announcement for the Round Three of funding - and through CMHC sort of coming out and the Federal Government stating that this is a program, and this has an initiative in the National Housing Strategy is at least on some levels working, and this announcement that was had with the Prime Minister and various other levels of government was actually broadcast from the lobby of that YW project. So that's I think a bit of an endorsement of the success that we had on this project.

This is another project that actually was right on the heels of it, and that collaborative effort we talked about with the group in Toronto, who had done a project and had the building department engaged - that was actually our R-Hauz Solutions. They were working with the York Region on a solution - we ended up in lockstep almost with our YW project, executing this slight variation. But I think this really goes to show the versatility and the adaptability and the efficiency of being able to repeat this model that we've come up with on this project - which was actually geared towards homeless men. Next slide here.

Again, you can see the overhead view of both phases of that YW project that we looked at. Again just a bit of a construction shot of the second phase of the project and that allows you to see that same envelope system - the EIFS application that we used as the appropriate solution for this, and we're already looking at other cladding and building science envelope solutions on other projects as we carry on. 

Next, we could see - we're actually now we are seeing the proliferation of this system, and what this is a market rate project we're working on in Kitchener, where it was actually interestingly enough, started down the path of a conventional. We do consider ourselves agnostic, that we can design with any structural system. This project was intended to be non-combustible - primarily utilizing precasts, but through some of the costing and some of the market forces, got feedback from our builder team and our trade team that actually a hybrid approach with CLT floors and stick frame walls as Patrick had talked about some of their  work there, was actually the best way to go - and that's the way that this project is now going, so that's exciting.

And this one potentially more than any other really during the showcase - this is a really exciting project master planned, block plan in Tillsonburg, which has a real close adjacency to the new Element5 facility in St Thomas. And this is a mixed use of buildings with mid-rise, you can see there is the high rise in the back, as well as that commercial office and retail in the front - so we're really  able to flex our design muscles and really utilize and optimize this product on a project  like this - in a really versatile way, but yet in a way that takes this last you know almost decade of experience and understanding, and as I said more importantly than anything - network of expertise  and applies it to projects like this.

Just finishing off here before I pass it back to Patrick - for myself I actually grew up in a rural area, about an hour north of Kitchener-Waterloo and this was actually a picture on the left that was taken from the erection of a family farm - and actually the property I grew up on. And you know, on reflection of our work over the last few years in this space. The picture on the right is on the site of Building 1 of YW, with the trade team and the constructors, a bunch of our team are in pictured in this photo, myself with a little bit more hair.

And you know it just occurred to me that that innovation - in order to execute  on this type of innovation in the market it is  very challenging, but one of the things about being here today is reinforcing the importance of collaboration amongst not just design or consultants or constructors, but around everyone  that's ultimately responsible for the execution of the project - right up to the approvals  authorities, it's so important and for us that's what we're really trying to push and promote in our industry right now. So thanks again for the opportunity, looking forward to questions and having Patrick take over again.  

Mass Timber Challenges

Patrick Chouinard, Element5
Great, thank you Matt. So - challenges and opportunity. There are definitely challenges in the mass timber industry. There is the perception that wood burns, that it's not strong and that it won't last. There isn't a lot of experience in the industry, there aren't a lot of architects or engineers who know how to design and engineer buildings this way. There's not a lot of education in the marketplace. Human nature is we're resistant to change, we're risk averse, there's a lack of information.

There are some challenges with building code, but Ontario has actually come a long way. We haven't mentioned it, but we can go up to a 12-story encapsulated mass timber building in Ontario at the moment. There has been some price volatility in the lumber industry over the last year, but at the moment lumber prices are sort of rock bottom which is great.

There are barriers to entry for manufacturers to get into this industry, because it's a significant investment to get a plant up and running. Profitability is quite slim. The margins aren't you know aren't high at the moment, and also, it's a risky and complex industry.

But I think the construction industry is also facing many challenges - maybe even more so than the mass timber industry. For years, there have been thinning margins, labor shortages, abysmal productivity. You mix that with the challenge to house and provide infrastructure for a growing population, which is largely going to happen in urban centers, and in the midst of an environmental crisis that's exacerbated by the way we build today.

We need to change the way we're building, in order to have less impact on the environment. There are signals of large-scale disruption that is happening in the industry at the moment. 

We're seeing:

  • The introduction of environmentally friendly alternatives to concrete and steel,
  • More mass timber manufacturers coming into the marketplace,
  • Advances in modular construction,
  • Advances in software technology - so 3D modelling and BIM technology,
  • And then a lot more access to mainstream stream capital.

RBC Capital Markets predicts that there is a compound average growth rate in mass timber at about 17% per year. Based on our experience, we're seeing that that growth rate is significantly higher than that, so we think that's quite conservative.  There's a growing number of resources that are available in the marketplace, and you know there is one major mass timber manufacturer in Ontario at the moment, which is Element5 but  many of the buildings - the larger buildings that I showed you at the beginning of the presentation were supplied by mass timber manufacturers either outside of Ontario, other provinces, or by Europeans, so there's certainly a supply of mass timber manufacturers.

The photograph that you see on the left, is of our plant in St Thomas. It's quite large - 137 000 square feet. The next photo is the interior. It is considered the most fully automated mass timber manufacturing plant in North America at the moment. We have the capacity to produce about 80 of the YWCA buildings that Matt referred to in his presentation, that is assuming we did only those buildings through the course of the year. And - we control our supply chain, right from forest floor through to finished product. And all of the products we source come from FSC certified forests.

So Matt, let me turn it back over to you.

Overview of Edge Architects

Matt Bolen, Edge Architects
Yeah thanks so I think, I mean I gave a probably a bit of the overview of some of our work here that you can see - and again going back you know - in terms of the sustainability, the innovation and the collaboration, those are really driving forces for us. And trying to think, figure out you know - we understand why convention is the way it is in construction. It's - you know we're talking about big projects, big investment for everyone involved, so trying to figure out ways to do things differently is a challenging thing, and we that's where we feel as though we're well equipped to try to do that.

Part of doing that means really understanding the conventional means, and being well-versed, and well experienced in those which we are, or feel we are.  And that gives us an ability to understand  where the opportunities actually lie, so you don't find us always trying to push you know our innovative things, we are always doing it in a way that actually makes sense - where there can be an  advantage that isn't just aesthetic, or isn't just environmental, because we believe that if you're looking into that through that myopic  lens it's not going to be effective in terms of the execution, and that's where we ultimately want to live.

I'll leave it there. There's a lot of really interesting - I've just started scanning the Q and A, and I think there's a lot of interesting questions there. Some of them hopefully, we can answer a lot of them today. I'm sure there'll be a lot of discussion afterwards, and I think both Patrick and I are excited to get to that, connect with all the interested parties here, and keep building on that open source collaboration in the industry.  

There is access to other resources and that is Ontario Woodworks for example, I don't know if you're familiar with them, but they have lots of free technical resources around the wood industry, and mass timber, and a number of courses as well. So with that, I will turn it back, I'll stop sharing and I'll turn it back over to Giovanni.  

Q & A

Giovanni Cautillo, President, OGCA
So I think that just by the questions alone that we've had we can do another webinar.  The questions are fast and furious and excellent at that. I'm just going to touch upon a couple of them here. If we do not get to your question, do not worry I'll have Patrick and Matt respond to them, and we can actually have like a question answer distribution after the fact.

So one of the questions that is asked, is on the Ascent project, which has the first eight floors in concrete, and then wood. Why is that? Why is the mix use? Is it aesthetic or is it structural in nature?

Patrick Chouinard
I would say it's largely structural in nature - that 25-story building. We weren't involved, it wasn't our project so I mean I can't attest to the reasons for that, but I would assume it's more of a of a structural nature. It might have something to do with code compliance as well. Matt, I don't know if you have anything to add.  

Matt Bolen
No I think just a general comment that probably  that actually I think already applies to a lot of this, and something that we're doing again - we would have seen you know that mass timber was always something that was high-end or seen for a certain type of thing, and what we've tried to realize is that as creative designers, and working with design teams of structural engineers and fire consultants, and all these  sorts of things, it's always about optimizing any structural system appropriately for the best use.

And that means being open to using any product in any way and also looking for hybrid uses, and that's where we're seeing you know on a project like that, again I don't know the inner workings of it, but you know - I'm assuming that there was some sort of both code or structural efficiency related reason for that. And that's what we're seeing is you know always just searching for the best possible solution, and using the innovative product in this case, or innovative design feature in a way that makes sense and actually helps contribute in a valuable way.

So I have a question about basically a comparative between obviously mass timber and steel and concrete construction. Is there a sweet spot where the pricing level on the larger buildings then tips in the scale for mass timber being more beneficial or more cost effective?
Patrick Chouinard
Yeah I'll touch upon that, and maybe Matt you can add some value to that as well. So we're seeing a lot of opportunity in, well - we're seeing opportunity across the industry, from everything from single-family homes up to large commercial buildings. It's probably easier to talk about where we're not seeing mass timber, and that is anything above 12 stories right now - as I say we can go to 12 stories in Ontario, but we're not seeing mass timber at least at this point, you know buildings beyond 12 stories.  

We're not seeing mass timber in sort of the industrial building typology, that is really well served by off-the-shelf sort of steel buildings - so where there's long spans between support structures. So those are sort of the two key kind of areas where we're not seeing it at the moment.  

The sweet spot where we have identified is really that 2 to 6-story range, and so that's why we've proactively gone after the multi-use, multi-unit residential building because you know - that mid-rise section of the marketplace, because the lower-end of the industry is well-served by the light wood frame industry. The upper end above 12 stories, is well served by the concrete and steel industries, and there's that missing middle sector of the marketplace that is really well served by the mass timber industry, and where we know we can be cost-competitive.

Matt Bolen
I just say I totally agree with that, even though as a focus of our work being on the missing middle you know as it's been coined, that is exactly where mass timber is providing all its efficiency. Thick frame oftentimes, we start to struggle with on those higher scale, you know two, three, four stories or any mix of uses where things are coming together on the fire side that becomes challenging and complex - mass timber is a great solution to that.  

But then also in an efficiency standpoint, if you can design it efficiently, it can come in where precast and steel and other hybrid types of non-combustibles struggle at with the economy of scale projects that are smaller - that's where, that's where we're seeing a lot of value.  

So we have so many good questions here, holy smokes. So on master structures, what would be the durability, or the lifespan of the structure as compared to concrete and steel structures?  

Patrick Chouinard

I love that question. So you know, Toronto has this really rich history in heavy timber construction. There was a period of time between the 1850s and the 1920s, that there was a lot of these brick and beam buildings constructed in the Ontario Marketplace. And there's about 150 of those old brick and beam buildings that are still around today in Toronto, some of which were built, some of which have been around for 150 years or more.

One of the preconceived perceptions that we have to overcome in mass timber, is that it's not strong and it won't last - but as evidenced from what's happened in the brick and beam industry from way back when, these buildings last for a long time.  Like the YW project that we did together with Matt - we're anticipating conservatively that the life expectancy for that building will be a hundred years or more.

Interesting um Okay. So in regards to you know longevity of it, and whatnot, I think we also want to look at historical data on water claims. Does water damage impact the life expectancy differently than it would and steel and concrete? And again, then we have the added caveat of mold. So who wants to take that?

Matt Bolen

Yeah I mean I think what we're understanding and seeing proven out is that all buildings, I mean moisture control with any system, but particularly anything where you have you know like concrete buildings or anything with concrete toppings in terms of conventional non-combustibles - the moisture control there is also you know something that needs to be dealt with during construction.  And so that system in place, you know it needs to be there regardless.

In terms of once the building is enclosed and the building has climatized fully, there's really - I mean they're really the same, a structure is a structure is a structure. Regardless of what type of system or hybridized system it is. Of course as soon as you get into either fire or water damage during construction, or fire or water damage after construction - any structural system is  going to have a wealth of analysis that you know oftentimes as we know, it's not so much in  fire events the fire itself that creates these challenges for the building and the structure  but actually the water in the sprinkler, which of course is a great thing for public for  life safety - but in terms of building durability that can be a challenge.

So, again there I'm sure we're going to get to it - but you know the insurance industry, and their understanding of this type of product and building, and ability to cover it - is something that with the more buildings we do, the better that that process is going to get. But generally, you know for as a product it's largely the same type of factors influencing all systems.

So I did note during your presentation that you know, you talked about ceiling joints and whatnot just like in a typical construction that would be the case, so I just think that it just a different process that you would go about doing so. I think one of the mainstays or main questions that we've had repetitively is in regards to fire safety. When the building  models are being built I know that there was  some fire testing that occurred in Ottawa on mass timber structures and whatnot, and I do know that ultimately this study is  pending when it comes down to the results of  which, but what can you touch upon in regards  to fire safety and obviously the insurance portion of that and how we can view mass timber with regards to fire and insurance?

Matt Bolen

Matt, do you want to take that one? OK. Yeah as I said I think the industry right now in terms of the expertise and the fire consulting, and actually the code changes that have happened in the last I would say the most recent one specifically that Patrick referenced that allows for up to 12-story encapsulated, have really created a large runway for the acceptance through the building code of mass timber projects, and does acknowledge the wealth of testing data that's out there that clearly proves out the performance of the mass timber is very much like yeah you know concrete, and a lot of other systems.

The char rating, the ability of that fire to not just completely burn through the structure - as long as you know, you basically get your char rating, and you get your you just have to design the panels to be able to char, and then have if you're exposed and then have structure left after the charring has happened and the fire is sequestered.

So that piece of we'll call it the building science, is very well known, very well understood and very well accepted from the code standpoint. And again, I think as more buildings get done, that the insurance will catch up to that.

Right so is there a group trying to modify the building code to have it widely accepted across the Province or the Country, especially in regards to fire protection?

Matt Bolen

Yeah I mean I don't know. I mean Canada Wood Council, a lot of these other you know groups out there are doing a lot of good work, and I think there has been a lot of that happening actually already. I'm sure it's going to continue.  

And like I said, we're seeing that with every iteration of the code that's come out for the past decade, there has been that push to be more permissive of wood and get back to the comfort that we had, as Patrick said 100 years ago. I'll just talk briefly about insurance - yeah so when mass timber came out to market, and the whole industry struggled with misperceptions about building with wood, and I think the insurance the industry struggled with it as well.

I don't know if they just didn't have a thorough understanding of it, or whether they were looking for an opportunity to charge more for this new kind of building typology - but there has been more maturity in the insurance industry about dealing with mass timber. You may find if you went out to the you know, the common suppliers in the industry for insurance, that their rates are significantly higher than others, but there are a select group of insurance companies that have taken a leadership role here to really dive into it and understand it better and understand the risks. I think there may be some people in the audience here from the insurance industry, and so insurance rates have come down significantly for mass timber projects.  

I do know we're at the hour, but there's so many questions if everyone doesn't mind, I'd like to just ask one or two more. We've got a contractor who's asking if there is a possibility of bringing affordable housing system to market can we share some high-level structure only costs with developers?

Is that a possibility that we can then entice developers in order to accept and move towards mass timber?

Patrick Chouinard

Absolutely. Maybe I'll address that first, and maybe Matt you can jump in as well. You know we have this wonderful fabrication facility in St Thomas Ontario, and the reason why we have it is we're motivated for many reasons. It's a great business opportunity, but we're also in a position to make a positive contribution to the environment, but we also see that it's our responsibility to make a compositive contribution to affordable housing, housing for First Nations communities, to create healthier schools for individuals.

Matt and I actually set out about two years ago, to design and engineer a mass timber building. One we saw a great opportunity that mid-rise section of the marketplace, but it was also an opportunity for us to make a positive contribution - and since then we've been pushing hard to offer the industry a sustainable and affordable mass timber solution for the affordable housing sector.

And so we won our first project together with Matt, we've since done a second project with Matt for the second building that he showed you. We did the third building, which was the hybrid structure with CLT floors and light wood frame walls. And now we have a whole push uh to go out to all the municipal governments, to Toronto Housing Secretariat, to Toronto housing affordable to promote our affordable housing solutions.

So yes, we're really interested in that sector of the marketplace and any general contractor who's interested in working with us, please contact us and we can provide all of the information that you need to help move forward in that sector.  

Yeah I think that obviously the majority of questions are about the financial aspect, about you know if we want to sell mass timber, or if we want to make mass timber an alternative that everyone jumps upon - it has to be a price-point discussion. I'm also finding out that you know, I'm going to ask just the last question here, but are you finding that builder's risk and wrap up insurance is higher for mass timber structures than steel and concrete structures?

Patrick Chouinard

It's not my area of expertise quite honestly. I haven't had to deal with that personally. I've - let's just say I've not had it raised as an issue, when we are presenting pricing for mass timber versus other forms of construction. We haven't seen pushback from the general contractor sector, that tells us that is the reason why projects aren't going ahead is because it's proven to be more expensive - that's really all I can tell you about that.  

Matt Bolen
Yeah and just to second that, I think you know in our - that's not our area of expertise either, but I'm actually going on to another call after this about another mass number project with again a reputable builder here, so I can definitely ask it. If there's a follow-up, I'd be happy to go through the list of questions here and help consolidate a list of Q and A responses.

We could definitely look to get some of that information and the expertise on that particular item if need be, and to Patrick's point as well - for us as from the design optimization side, trying to get these systems with apples to apples comparisons has been so key.  So for us the metrics are clear - is what does a pre-total precast building on a per square foot typically go for? We're using and working with contractors who actually know that, who have clear and current data on that.

We need to make sure and when we're in these competitive and RFP environments with them as team members, and leading the proposals - the mass timber that comes in that pricing has to be in in alignment, so that we can be competitive. And I think so far, we're showing that we've been able to do that. But it does take I think a design team and a design-led, design build approach that really looked for the optimization of the system to the benefit of the project. And that's where we put a lot of stress, and frankly value in our input comes in.

Wrap Up

Giovanni Cautillo
So I want to thank you both for participating - Patrick, Matt the conversation was fantastic. For all those who've asked questions, I am going to pass along all those questions to both Patrick and Matt to address, and then we'll put it out as a follow-up including the presentation itself.

I think there's a lot of excellent data within the presentation. You have resources within it as well. If you need to reach out to either Patrick or Matt they are a phone call or an email away. Any last words gentlemen? Patrick, I'll flip it to you first. 

Patrick Chouinard
Well I just I think there's a great opportunity for general contractors in the industry we're seeing huge demand for this, it's an innovative approach and I think there's an opportunity for anyone that wants to take you know an entry - you know take a leadership role. Because we know that the companies who have invested in it so far, they seem to be getting more and more of the same projects over and over again. So they become the go-to organizations in the industry, so I think there's a great opportunity for general contractors. 

Matt, you get the last word.

Matt Bolen
Ah so I'm 41 years old, and I really hope that no one went over that. I know I got some gray here, but otherwise I think I'm doing okay. Thanks again everyone, and yeah looking forward to next steps.

Giovanni Cautillo
Fantastic. Once again, we'll finish off. Happy birthday Matt! To all those again participating, the recording will be available in short order. Thank you one and all for your participation and we look forward to our next webinar. So with that being said, thank you everyone for their participation. Have yourselves a fantastic day!

Resources Mentioned in Webinar