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| 03/07/18

Brick-and-beam buildings: the cozier way to save the planet?


Construction of the first brick-and-beam buildings in Toronto and New York City in almost a century are underway, and similar buildings are springing up in Minneapolis and Portland. The projects are a great example of buy-in of forest carbon mitigation by architects, developers and consumers, but not necessarily to save the planet. It turns out many people just love the warmth of these sort of spaces more than steel and cement.

The five-storey building in Toronto, 80 Atlantic developed by Hullmark and architectural firm Quadrangle, takes its inspiration from the trend of the past few decades of transforming disused historic warehouses and factories into hip lofts, offices, restaurants and shops. The developer, quoted in the Toronto Star, describes the combination of old form with advanced wood technologies as a “new heavy timber building.” The beams do not come from ancient tall trees anymore, but a super-strong wood laminate called glulam, for “glued laminated timber,” which involves laminating a series of small pieces of wood into a single large, strong one.

The style is one of the first to be permitted under an overhaul of Ontario’s building code that now permits wood-framed structures as high as six storeys, up from the previous limit of four due to fire concerns. By using new types of super-strong and fire-resistant wood products, carbon-intensive concrete and steel can be displaced while also sequestering carbon in the building itself over the long term.

However, the trick has always been to transform what mathematical forest and carbon modelling says is in principle possible into a reality on the ground. But it seems that architects and developers are finding these new materials married to old forms of building really attractive to potential tenants and owners.

“They also happen to be materials that are warm and natural,” developer Jeff Hull told The Star. He feels that he can charge a premium to clients for such spaces as well. That the materials are renewable and powerful agents of climate mitigation adds to the marketing potential, but these are secondary considerations for developers.

Across the border, New York City will this year see its first brick-and-beam buildings in a century as well. Two midrise office and retail buildings, one three-storey and the other five-storey, are currently under construction in the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Developed and designed by Flank architects, the buildings use nail-laminated timber with wood from Chibougamau, Quebec that was then manufactured by Montreal firm Nordic Structures. The developers report that the cost to be equivalent to that of steel and concrete, but that construction is faster because the timber is prefabricated and fits together.

Courtesy 320 and 360 Wythe

Here too, while the developers promote the sustainability of their building on their website, they say that it is the aesthetic of the wood that is really driving this construction option. “It’s much more appealing than the drywall box we’re all used to living and working in,” architect Mick Walsdorf told 6sqft in January.

Other North American cities have also begun to warm to the idea of timber construction in the last few years. The seven-storey T3 office project in Minneapolis completed last year is the tallest wooden building in the US, and its developers also cited the structural advantages, lower costs and faster development in their decision to embrace timber. And when completed, the Framework affordable housing project in Portland, Oregon, a wooden skyscraper that will save an estimated 60 percent carbon savings over a conventional structure, will climb 12 storeys.


T3 – GoPro of Panel Install from StructureCraft on Vimeo.

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