Vancouver's top planner, Gil Kelley, wants council to amend building code to allow 12-storey mass-timber buildings

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      When the development company Port Living announced a 19-storey project called Terrace House in Vancouver, it was going to be the world's tallest mass timber–concrete hybrid building.

      At 71 metres, the Shigeru Ban–designed structure at 1250 West Hastings Street would extend even higher than the 53-metre Brock Commons Tallwood House.

      Terrace House includes seven storeys of mass timber on top of 12 storeys of concrete.

      Brock Commons TallWood House is a hybrid mass-timber student residence designed by Acton Ostry Architects on UBC's Point Grey Campus.

      Now, there are plans on the books for a 350-metre mass-timber building in Tokyo and a 304.8-metre mass-timber tower in London, England, leaving Terrace House and Brock Commons Tallwood House in the dust.

      But that hasn't discouraged Vancouver city staff from advancing a proposal to stimulate mass timber construction—three years after this was suggested within the pages of the Georgia Straight.

      Gil Kelley, the general manager of planning, urban design, and sustainability, has recommended that council approve in principle amendments to the city's building bylaw "to align with provincial regulation and National Building Code proposals".

      This would facilitate construction of mass-timber buildings up to 12 storeys for residential and commercial uses, taking effect on July 1.

      Brock Commons Tallwood House is an 18-storey hybrid-timber student residence at UBC.

      Planner says mass timber is fire-resistant

      Kelley consulted with the chief building official and Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services in preparing a report going to council's policy and strategic priorities committee on Wednesday (May 26).

      Kelley has also recommended amendments to the fire bylaw. This would ensure the city adopts B.C. Fire Code measures related to encapsulated mass timber construction.

      These amendments have already been approved in Richmond, Surrey, the City of North Vancouver, and 10 other municipalities.

      Kelley's report explained that mass timber is created with several smaller pieces of lumber, which are laminated to provide the structural components for walls, floors, columns, and beams.

      "Engineered to meet the minimum standards for structural performance, mass timber is also significantly more fire resistant than light timber construction," he wrote. "Further, mass timber is currently covered, or 'encapsulated' by one or more layers of gypsum board to meet the minimum fire protection performance required by the building codes."

      The climate crisis has moved this issue up higher on the staff's priority list. 

      "The changes recommended in this report are one of the first priority actions under the Climate Emergency Response related to Big Move #5, reducing carbon pollution from construction materials and designs," Kelley wrote. "Mass timber is a natural low carbon material with good insulating properties, and is pre-manufactured off-site in large, modular pieces."

      In 2010, council amended the building bylaw to allow wood structures up to six storeys. This came after the B.C. Building Code had been amended the previous year to allow this.

      Vancouver architect Michael Green designed T3 Minneapolis, which was the tallest mass timber building in North America when it opened in 2016.

      Architect wanted city to move on this years ago

      One of the pioneering voices pushing for mass timber construction has been Vancouver architect Michael Green.

      In 2015, he joined forces with a Finnish company, Metsä Wood, and Equilibrium Consulting in Vancouver to determine if it was feasible to build a structure the size of the Empire State Building with wood.

      They determined that it was possible to do this. The Empire State Building is 103 storeys.

      Yet Green told the Straight in 2017 that the City of Vancouver had been slow to embrace the idea of mass timber construction even as it was aspiring to be the world's greenest city.

      “This is an idea that we started,” Green declared in that interview. “I authored the original concepts on tall wood. It’s a Vancouver-born idea that now is being implemented in New York, Chicago, and Minneapolis. But we don’t have it here. It’s time.”