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A 12-storey wooden building? “Sounds like the Hindenburg!”

Looks like wood wants to take on steel and concrete for tall building supremacy


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July 11, 2016 by John Bleasby

Last month, we reported that a 12-storey WOODEN condo building was under construction in Quebec City. (See our June 14th story on the Origine project here.)

Steel and concrete are in a tug of war with structural wood for the future of tall(er) construction, highlighting the reluctance of existing industries, insurers, and regulators to embrace change. Here’s a somewhat light-hearted look at an argument that’s sure to become more boisterous over time.

Rusty Steele is a thin, angular fellow with a stare that rivets your attention. His buddy Conrad is a stone-faced man with a gravelly voice whose shape flows into whatever chair he sits. Friendly rivals, they like to get together once a week to exchange bragging rights. This time, they’ve agreed to meet at Conrad’s favourite pub,
‘The Re-Bar’.

Rusty: Like I was sayin’ Conrad; my steel frame is way better when it comes to seismic activity. I bend but I don’t break. One little jiggle and you just crack up.

The 13-storey 'Origine' condominium in Quebec is a breakthrough for Canadian wood strcutures

The 13-storey ‘Origine’ condominium in Quebec is a breakthrough for Canadian wood structures

Conrad: You kiddin’ Rusty? My bulk is what makes me so tough. Try blowing me over in a typhoon! Try blowing me up! You? You’d end up like a busted Meccano set on the side of the road! And don’t get me goin’ about fires. You melt under the heat, everyone knows that.

Rusty: Hey! Foul ball! You’re talking about 9/11, and that was jet fuel what did that. You put yourself into that kind of heat and you’d buckle, too.

Conrad: The other thing, Rusty, and I’ve been telling you this for years, is that you’re not flexible. It’s more than just bending and taking the blow; you’re just all straight lines and angles. Me, I can take whatever shape asked for. Take the Guggenheim, for example. That’s what I’m talking about!

Rusty: Yeah, well look at the Eiffel Tower! And you talk about flexibility? The buildings today, they want to be able to change the interior walls and stuff. Open spaces; that’s what people want. You? You take a shape and that’s it. Takes a jack-hammer to get you to change.

Just then, a stranger stands in the doorway. He’s young, with long scruffy hair and wearing a plaid hemp shirt. There’s a confident swagger as he comes towards to Rusty’s and Conrad’s table.

Rusty: (In his best ‘Popeye’ imitation) Well, shiver me timbers! Look who just sauntered in here. It’s that new kid in town. What’s his name again?

Conrad: Calls himself ‘Woodie’. Got a lot to say for himself, from what I hear. A bit big for his britches.

The Tamedia publishing company's 7-storey headquarters in Zurich Switzerland featured massive structured wood beams, pinned with wood dowels

The Tamedia publishing company’s 7-storey headquarters in Zurich Switzerland features massive structured wood beams, pinned with wood dowels

Woodie: Hey guys! How’s it goin’? Mind if I join you?

Conrad: Hmmm…I guess. We been hearing a lot about you lately, how you think you’re the next greatest thing in tall buildings. Take a seat. We been looking forward to chopping you down to size a bit.

Rusty: Sure have! Say, young fellow, the first thing I want to know is why you think you’re any good at anything. Far as I’m concerned you’re just an accident looking to happen. One tossed match and we got us the biggest campfire and weeny roast in the City’s history!

Conrad: Right on, Rusty. And not only, I wonder how strong you really are. Plus, every time I turn around, seems you need some government grant before anyone uses you. You must be an awful expensive date! (Rusty and Conrad share a chuckle).

Woodie: Hey guys, chill a bit, OK? I get that you’re maybe a bit envious. I mean, I am pretty damn good looking. People really get excited, especially when I expose a little of my natural flesh. I get that. But you’re dead wrong about fires, strength and cost. Are you two old timers interested in facts, or are you just happy to blow wind out your tailpipes?

Rusty: Listen to him. Mister Smart Ass! But OK, go ahead. Enlighten us, Einstein.

Woodie: Well, first-off, I may be young and good looking, but I have a fine pedigree that goes back hundreds of years. Pagodas in Japan, post and beam buildings in Europe; my family goes waaay back, long before you guys even. But let’s deal with this fire thing. Fact is, I meet the two hour fire resistance ratings, just like you. How come? It’s due to my mass. You can char my skin but it doesn’t burn into my internal structure. In fact, it insulates me from further damage. That’s because I’m incredibly dense…

Conrad: Bet your ‘mass’ you’re dense…. (laughing)

Comparing tall structured wood buildings to the 'Hindenburg' may be a stretch....

Comparing tall structured wood buildings to the ‘Hindenburg’ may be a stretch….

Woodie: (ignoring the bait)… and just like with you, when two layers of gypsum are applied on top, it adds even more fire resistance. Not to mention the sprinkler systems that almost all buildings have nowadays.

Rusty: Yeah? Try that argument with the insurance companies. Sounds like the Hindenburg to me.

Woodie: They’re already coming around. Look at Europe; they’re way ahead of us accepting wood in tall buildings.

Conrad: What about cost? Seems you only work out with a government grant of some sort.

A detailed analysis of per foot costs for a 12 and 20 storey FFTT buildings to be very competitive with traditional techniques

A detailed analysis of per foot costs for a 12 or 20 storey FFTT building suggests they are very competitive with traditional techniques (Canadian Wood Council)

Woodie: It’s true, the National Research Council (NRC) is helping out with some research and investment and the like. But I can show you detailed numbers that confirm that I’m just as strong and no more expensive than you when all’s said and done. And I’m talking peer—reviewed numbers. Plus, most of my componentry can be pre-fab’ed off site and assembled quickly, maybe faster than you! That’s where my cost efficiency comes in.

Rusty: Well, we’ll look at your numbers. But what about bugs…and mold. Remember the Vancouver ‘Leaky Condo’ thing a few years back?

Woodie: Hey! That’s wasn’t LVL’s, CLT’s or FFTT’s. That was completely different.

Conrad: What the FFTT is ‘FFTT’?

Woodie: ‘Find the Forest Through the Trees’. It’s a building system. You guys really ought to read up on this. The codes are changing. I’m here now and I’m here to stay. And did I mention the carbon foot print issue? You’re dead meat in that argument.  Sorry to give you the news!

Rusty looks at Conrad, rolling his eyes.

Rusty:. Hear that, Conrad? ‘Carbon Foot Print’! I knew it would come down to that. What took him so long?

Read more about structural wood construction
and what it might mean for your business in the future

The argument over steel versus concrete
The argument for steel over wood
The Canadian Wood Council’s argument for wood versus steel and concrete
Re-thinking the argument of wood versus steel and concrete
The Tamedia building in Zurich Switzerland
The National Research Council (Canada) position on wood structures
The ‘Origine’ condominium project in Quebec

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