An unconventional cabin raised up on recycled gas pipes and an estate home with a floating roof took centre stage at the 10th annual Prairie Wood Design Awards earlier this month on March 13 as architects, designers and engineers were applauded for pushing the boundaries of wood construction in residential buildings.
The category winner, a net-zero townhouse development in Edmonton by Habitat Studio, was credited with demonstrating how timber can support aesthetic goals as well as sustainability and passive house standards. The project opened its doors at the end of 2017 as an affordable housing development for refugees in North Glenora.
“The projects shortlisted demonstrate Alberta’s increasing commitment to exploring options for wood in construction,” says Rory Koska, program director of awarding body Wood Works! Alberta, whose mandate is to increase the use of wood in construction. “Advancements in wood research and technology are breaking down barriers for our industry and creating exciting new opportunities for the design community.”
Entrants in the residential category agree that advances in wood construction, including engineered timber and the continued success of the tall wood building sector, providing structural solutions for wood buildings greater than 10-storeys, are driving innovation.
“Our philosophy is that local and sustainable wood products are the best choice,” Mr. Koska says. “Here in Canada, we have the most sustainably managed forests in the world right in our backyard. From an environmental standpoint, wood has a far lower carbon footprint than other materials. And it grows back. Wood also supports jobs in our communities, so it’s a win for everyone. Then there is the aesthetic side of things, that pretty much sells itself.”
Since the program’s inception, Mr. Koska says they’ve seen an increase in the variety of ways that wood is being used, especially in mid-rise developments. He cites some of their favourite projects including the PriMed Mosaic building; a net-zero office building in Edmonton, and Rocky Ridge Recreation Facility in Calgary, which has the largest wood roof in North America.
“We are proud that Alberta is a leader in sustainable construction and embracing the use of mass wood products in new buildings,” he says. “We feel we are seeing a real renaissance in wood design.”
One of the more unusual entries to make the award shortlist is a stilted plywood cabin on Lake Winnipeg, called the Pole House, by Winnipeg-based Din Projects. Principal designer Neil Minuk calls the seasonal family cabin, set back from Lake Winnipeg, a “low-budget build” that required a unique foundation system due to its location.
“The lot is on Lake Winnipeg, but it’s set back from the lake quite a distance so, in order to get a view of the water, we had to elevate the home,” he explains. “We were also working with a shallow bedrock and a high water table, which isn’t good for any kind of stable foundation, so we built a dock and drilled pipes into the rock to build platforms off those pipes, essentially treating the ground like water.”
The pipes were locally sourced recycled gas pipes and the structure of the frame is plywood with “a blanket of rigid insulation skinned with pre-finished metal.”
“The client was interested in an idea of a tree house so we wanted it to be quite rustic. Inside is a rich wood frame where you see all these joists,” Mr. Minuk says. “Plywood was perfect because it’s cheap, light and flexible.
“In many ways it challenges the traditional cabin typology in Canada which is a rustic little box on the ground,” he continues. “It’s like a ship or a portal to another realm or space.”
Also aiming to achieve grand vistas, albeit with a larger budget, a shortlisted renovation in Priddis, Alta., created an impressive new floating roof structure for an estate home from Douglas fir.
“We could have used a different material, of course, but timber is particularly effective with this design where you want to project the roof out so that it looks like it floats,” designer Marvin DeJong of Calgary’s DeJong Design Associates says.
“Whereas a typical roof profile clips off the view of the horizon, especially when you’re deep within the house, these butterfly or mono-pitch roofs open to the horizon, so you can see forever. We propose that a lot for country houses where the views are so long,” he says.
“The design also keeps the house shaded and cool in summer while maximizing sun exposure in winter, like a passive house,” he says.
Mr. DeJong says there are many factors driving renewed interest in wood design among architects and engineers, not least Canada’s Tall Wood Building Demonstration Initiative that includes Vancouver’s 18-storey Brock Commons; the tallest contemporary wood building in the world, and the 13-storey Origine in Quebec; which will be the tallest all-wood condo in North America.
“Tall wood is basically the same technology as steel-frame building and it’s come a long way very fast. It’s different from mid-rise wood frame construction but that’s an area where we’re also seeing advances. It’s bringing wood construction into the public realm in a big way,” he says. “The possibilities are very exciting.”
Wood Works! says they have concluded initial talks aimed at generating a second round of tall wood demonstration projects. The first round, in 2013, attracted more than 300 applications.
Kevin Harrison, a partner at Sturgess Architecture in Calgary, shortlisted for an infill home called House on the Heights, featuring large, wood-framed city vistas, predicts tall wood will continue to flourish in Canada in coming years.
“There’s a learning curve which needs to peak in terms of making tall wood construction more available in terms of constructability, structural ability and subsequent economics and when that peaks we’ll see more projects happening,” he says.
“But from a building code perspective, tall wood and advances in engineered wood provide new avenues of structural exploration,” he continues. “We’re in the process of exploring a six-storey wood-frame project and we have several ‘wood first’ projects on the horizon. Developers are certainly showing more interest in wood framed multifamily projects, mainly because of economics. Often the economics end up being a wash, but the sustainability aspect is certainly a value-add and the design possibilities can be really exciting.”