Tall timber skyscrapers beacon for a future friendlier to climate, Vancouver conference hears

For Dutch architect Do Janne Vermeulen, the “space race” to build the world’s tallest timber-based building is no longer a matter of pride, but more of a sustainable imperative.

“I don’t think it matters who gets the highest first,” Vermeulen said following her presentation to a sustainable-building conference in Vancouver.

“What’s interesting to see is that it helps to get attention for tall wood buildings,” which is the important part “because if you get one, you might get two, if you get 10 you might get 20 and with 20, you might get 100.”

Vermeulen’s Amsterdam-based firm, Team V Architecture, is in that race with its design for Haut, a 73-metre (240-feet-tall) hybrid mass-timber residential building in a new, sustainability focused residential district of that city.

And multiplying the numbers of buildings defined as sustainable, sequestering carbon in renewable wood construction materials, is becoming more important at a time when warnings about climate change are becoming more stark.

Vermeulen spoke Tuesday in a keynote address to Wood Works B.C.’s annual Wood Solutions conference, which is doing double-duty this year as a week-long gathering of international policy makers in collaboration with the lobby group Passivehouse Canada and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Committee on Forests and the Forest Industry.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in an October report, warned of irreversible changes if people don’t take immediate and substantial reductions in their greenhouse-gas emissions beyond what they are taking now.

If people don’t, they are courting climate temperature increases in as little as 12 years that would speed up the melting of sea ice, cause droughts, famine and flood that are worse than previously anticipated.

Responding, in British Columbia, means implementing initiatives such as the province’s Energy Step Code, an optional set of energy-efficiency standards, or the Canadian Build Smart standards, according to conference organizers.

With wood recognized as a low-carbon option, “it is imperative to offer technical knowledge through learning opportunities in wood products and building systems,” said Lynn Embury-Williams, executive director of Wood Works B.C.

In past years, the Wood Solutions conference has highlighted local vanguard projects such as the all-timber Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George, which is now home to University of Northern B.C. and Emily Carr University of Art and Design programs aimed at fostering the use of wood in construction.

The 18-storey timber-hybrid Brock House residence at the University of B.C. has also taken centre stage at Wood Solutions.

This year, however, the climate aspects are more firmly at centre stage of the week’s events than in previous years when the focus was as much on promoting B.C.’s value-added manufacturing of forest products.

“That (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report is just another statement in a long series of statements that empasizes the need for this kind of collaboration,” said Rob Bernhardt, CEO of Passivehouse Canada, about this week’s events.

Canada has a “very good policy framework,” with its Build Smart initiative, Bernhardt said, but governments need more encouragement in implementation.

“Doing is far more difficult than planning,” Bernhardt said.

And Vermeulen said she is hopeful that her firm’s Haut project, along with other projects that have been built or are under development stand as examples for a different kind of tall skyline than those dominated by towers built out of hard materials such as glass, concrete and steel.

“We imagine that a great big, high city can be soft, comfortable, and to a large part, made out of wood,” Vermeulen said.

And Haut stands as an example for how well the project is being accepted, Vermeulen said.

“We managed to do it and we managed to sell the apartments and we didn’t encounter any insurance or mortgage or any kind of process problems,” Vermeulen said.

depenner@postmedia.com

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