Canadian cities take wooden skyscrapers to new heights

 The planned 40-storey Earth Tower, Vancouver, will be the world’s tallest wood building. Photograph: Delta Group and Perkins+Will

British Columbia is no stranger to wooden giants. Along its western coast, Douglas fir and Sitka spruce trees topping 60 meters in height have in some cases weathered nearly a millennium of storms.

Now a growing chorus of architects, foresters and engineers want the province’s biggest city to grow another cluster of wooden giants: timber skyscrapers.

Already, Vancouver’s 18-storey Brock Commons tower stands as a testament to the vast possibilities of wood. Once the world’s tallest timber building, it was built cheaper, faster and with less environmental impact than a comparable steel and concrete structure would have been – offsetting an estimated 2,432 metric tonnes of carbon.

Now the provincial government has changed its building codes, effectively doubling the height limit for wood-frame buildings to 12 storeys (Brock Commons was granted an exception when it was built). The Canadian government is expected to match BC’s codes nationwide.

Vancouver is now pushing even those limits by unveiling plans for the Canada Earth Tower, an ambitious 40-storey tower that would be the world’s tallest wooden building. The design includes around 200 homes, with an outdoor garden for every three floors as well as premium office space and retail.

Meanwhile, government figures show nearly 500 mid-rise timber buildings in various stages of completion across the country.

“[British Columbia’s] actions have created a ripple effect around the world,” said Michael Green, a Vancouver-based architect and vocal proponent of timber buildings, pointing to recent relaxations in wood building codes in other countries. “The United States has changed its code effectively because of Canada. China is changing its code effectively because of Canada.”

There’s another reason Canadian officials think the country could take the lead in transforming the way we build: its vast supply of trees. Canada has nearly 350 million hectares of forest, with the bulk of harvesting in British Columbia – where its environmentally conscious design goals have often jarred with the deeply controversial practice of logging old-growth forests.

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