Can Mass Timber soothe Canada’s housing woes?
5.8 Million. That’s the number of new homes Canada needs to build by 2030 to ensure there’s affordable housing for everyone, as estimated by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.
There are many challenges that need to be addressed to resolve the housing crisis. At PLACE, there are two that are top of mind as we write this blog post. First, we need to build more houses at a faster pace. Second, to meet Canada’s Climate Targets, we must reduce the carbon footprint of the housing construction sector at the same time. Overcoming these challenges requires the construction sector to adopt a multitude of solutions and practices that can build the required housing over a short amount of time in a sustainable manner.
We think that Mass Timber Buildings can be one piece of the puzzle to addressing the housing crisis in Canada. And in this post, we’ll explore what Mass Timber brings to the table.
Wait, what is Mass Timber?
For a brief explainer on what is Mass Timber and its unique features, check out the PLACE Centre’s YouTube Short below:
Can Mass Timber Help the Housing Crisis IRL?
As highlighted in the video above, Mass Timber, in theory, has many properties that gives it great potential to substantially contribute to Canada’s housing shortage while helping reduce the sector’s emissions.
But does this potential translate to real-life applications?
To assess Mass Timber’s ability to help sustainably solve the housing crisis, we graded it on three criteria: the labour required to build a Mass Timber project, the time taken to complete a Mass Timber project, and the amount of wood required to make Mass Timber buildings a reality.
Mass Timber Requires Less Labour
As Canada aims to add more houses to its stock, it must contend with labour shortages in the construction sector which is currently facing a wave of retirements from ageing demographics. This has the potential of hampering the achievement of Canada’s housing targets as shortage of labour can result in project delays and cancellations.
Mass Timber is prefabricated which means the building’s components are produced in a manufacturing facility and then they are assembled at the construction site in a manner similar to putting together a LEGO set. Therefore, in Mass Timber projects, less labour is required in comparison to traditional construction methods. In Redstone Arsenal Alabama, the Candlewood Suites Hotel was built with Mass Timber and required 40% less on-site labour as compared to a cold form steel structure. While in other instances, Mass Timber has been known to reduce the on-site labour requirement by 50%. Hence, it can help the construction sector in expanding the housing stock while not being limited by worker shortages.
It should be noted however, that while Mass Timber requires ‘less labour’, it can still provide economic growth opportunities to communities in rural areas – particularly those in British Columbia impacted by the recent downturn in the forestry sector. But ensuring communities can capitalize on this opportunity requires policymakers to consider that workers will need to reorient their method of working and learn new skills as Mass Timber involves adopting newer construction methods and producing new products in wood manufacturing. This is one of the key research priority areas at PLACE with a specific focus on skills implications in B.C.’s Mass Timber sector. Jurisdictions across Canada, particularly B.C., need to place emphasis on meeting the skills requirements of Mass Timber manufacturing and construction projects. This will not only enable the sustainable mitigation of housing gap, but also provide workers with job opportunities in a newly emerging clean growth, value-added sector.
Mass Timber Requires Less Time to Construct
Time is of the essence in Canada as the country must add a large number of houses in a short period of time to resolve its housing needs (and housing affordability). Mass Timber projects take less time to build compared to concrete or steel buildings. Studies comparing timelines for buildings constructed using various materials suggest that Mass Timber buildings can take up to 20% less time in the construction phase as compared to a concrete building. On average, it has been reported that Mass Timber structures take 4-6 weeks less time in construction compared to a concrete or steel building.
Real-life evidence from structures built with Mass Timber suggests a similar story. One example is the Brock Commons Tallwood House which is an 18-storey building completed in a span of 66 days (about 2 months). Moreover, the seven storey T3 building in Minneapolis, which at the time of its construction was the largest timber building in North America, only took 9.5 weeks (about 2 months) to assemble the whole structure.
Canada Has Enough Sustainable Wood to Make Low Emissions, Mass Timber Buildings
Of course, if Canada does not have enough wood to support the industry in making homes, or quickly diminishes its wood supply, Mass Timber is not a sustainable solution in addressing the housing crisis or may cause further environmental harm. However, Canada’s wood supply seems to be able to sustainably support the industry.
First, it is important to note that the wood requirements for Mass Timber are quite flexible. Mass Timber products can be assembled with younger trees as opposed to traditional old-growth trees. This results in a better carbon footprint for Mass Timber (which already has a smaller carbon footprint in comparison to other common building materials like concrete, steel, and masonry) and can contribute towards better sustainable forest management practices.
Second, our calculations suggest that there is sufficient production capacity in Canada to produce Mass Timber housing sustainably. If Mass Timber can meet 10% of the demand for additional housing, it would require producing 350,000 homes made of Mass Timber over the next ten years. Take for example, Esquimalt Town Square in British Columbia, a mixed-use building constructed using Mass Timber over an area of 15,056 square meters (about half the area of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool), consisting of 68 housing units. If buildings like Esquimalt Town Square were to be used as a benchmark for future Mass Timber construction, then it would mean that 5,147 buildings would need to be constructed over the next ten years. On average, one square foot of a Mass Timber building requires one cubic foot of Mass Timber product, which in turn requires 22.5 board feet of softwood lumber. This would indicate a demand for 18.8 billion board feet of softwood lumber over the next decade. Currently, Canada’s softwood lumber production is at 23.71 billion board feet annually
Ultimately, both of these points make a strong case that Mass Timber buildings can be produced sustainably.
Mass Timber Is a Real Solution
Mass Timber has increasingly become globally embraced as a sustainable and efficient building material, and it only continues to spread. In the context of Canada’s housing crisis, Mass Timber truly has great potential to contribute to solving the country’s housing accessibility and affordability issues, while helping Canada meet its climate targets and bringing clean economic growth and jobs to communities in Canada.
Ultimately, integrating Mass Timber as a solution to the housing crisis means that we will all be winners as we establish more livable and sustainable communities, create jobs, and reduce emissions.