n:w explains
October 13, 2022

Top marks for timber: Wood use in B.C. schools 2.0

A new report for school districts, administrators and design professionals explores how wood-built schools can boost students’ well-being, cut carbon, speed up construction and offer flexible, earthquake-resistant design.

What are the benefits of building schools with wood? How can we build educational facilities that are flexible, while supporting student well-being and learning? What role can biophilic design and mass timber play? And how do we cut carbon, while delivering better schools faster, with earthquake-resistant designs?  Those are the questions Thinkspace Architecture Planning Interior Design Ltd. and Fast + Epp set out to explore in their newly released report Wood use in British Columbia schools.  


Built in 2010, Samuel Brighouse Elementary School is an early example of B.C.’s innovative use of wood products for school construction. An undulating nail-laminated timber (NLT) roof, made with two-by-fours and steel V-shaped king-posts, demonstrates the beauty and structural capacity of dimension lumber. | Photo credit: Nic Lehoux 


Timber technologies offer growing possibilities in school design

For the better part of a decade, British Columbia’s (B.C.’s) schools increasingly featured more innovative, eco-friendly and flexible designs. Today’s schools are more versatile and adaptable, focused on health and well-being, along with safety and function. The province is achieving this using prefabricated wood products manufactured locally while showcasing cutting-edge timber technologies globally. 

Timber technologies and techniques are rapidly evolving, opening new possibilities for school design. From hybrid-mass timber construction to factory-built prefabrication, the opportunities for the use of wood in schools are quickly expanding. 

Belmont Secondary High School | This secondary school’s library, built with a glue-laminated timber (glulam) post-and-beam structure and lumber decking, provides a two-story multi-purpose space for student functions and offers ample sunlight and views of the outdoors. | Photo credit: Barry Calhoun

Wood book cases, desktops, staircase and hybrid ceiling construction feature prominently in this interior view of the Belmont Secondary School library.

I honestly believe that incorporating the right mass timber products and designs could change the way we build schools forever, while setting a great example for public buildings with low environmental impact.

– Scott Comfort, CEO, Seagate Mass Timber  


Why wood is good for schools?

There are numerous benefits to building schools with wood, especially in B.C. It can be sourced from healthy and certified sustainable forests, while also supporting the provincial economy and communities across B.C.   

Historically, the construction materials for schools have followed the predominant construction method of the day, with wood-frame schools giving way to brick then concrete-and-steel structures. Generally speaking, the larger and more complex the project, the less wood was used—especially for structural elements.  

In the last 15 years, there has been a conscious shift back to timber-built public buildings, including B.C. schools. And for good reason, the design community is discovering the growing list of functional and performance benefits of using wood in schools.  

Gibsons Elementary School | This elementary school on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast was built as part of the province’s seismic upgrade initiative. The classrooms are in a different wing than the gymnasium, neighbourhood learning centre spaces and multi-purpose areas—making it possible for the community to maximize usage of these facilities without disrupting academic spaces. | Photo credit: Ed White Photographics

Interior daytime view of children and librarian inside glass fronted Gibsons Elementary School library area complete with structural Glue-laminated timber (glulam) beams and columns structural materials

Advances in products and technologies a boost for building schools with wood

Innovations in engineered wood and mass timber technologies drive the trend towards building more schools and public buildings with wood. This is due in part to changes in building codes, advancements in different types of mass timber, such as cross-laminated timber (CLT), nail-laminated timber (NLT), dowel-laminated timber (DLT), glulam, combined with hybrid building systems as well as light-frame wood construction.  



Benefits of using wood in schools 

The report highlights several benefits of using wood in schools. 

  • B.C. wood products stimulate the economy and require less transportation and associated emissions.  
  • The growth in wood use across the construction sector means there are more specialized design teams, consultants and trades available to work on school projects with wood components. 
  • Wood buildings, particularly those using engineered wood products, are well suited to withstand lateral forces in the event of an earthquake. 
  • Today’s modern wood frame and mass timber buildings have a proven fire safety record and are suitable for meeting the stringent safety guidelines for schools. 

wək̓ʷan̓əs tə syaqʷəm Elementary School seismic replacement | This Vancouver elementary school took advantage of off-site prefabricated mass timber products and just-in-time delivery methods—which in turn improved project efficiencies, sped up the construction schedule and ultimately offered overall cost savings. | Photo credit: Bright Photography 

sir matthew begbie elementary construction Feb9 2021 photos 116 credit bright photography courtesy naturallywood.com 1200x800 5b2df79

“To see mass timber being used in [school] construction … is an example of how we can work together to combat climate change and support B.C. mass timber technology while also providing the best possible learning environment for students.” 

– Jennifer Whiteside, B.C. Minister of Education 

Mass timber components can be prefabricated off-site and quickly assembled on-site, shortening the construction timeline by months in some cases. This means less disruption for students. Manufacturing entire wood panels and components in a controlled shop environment before installation lends to higher quality and more airtight construction.

Environmentally, when considering production, delivery and assembly, wood products have a lower carbon footprint than conventional building materials and can store carbon over the life of the building.

Traditional school layouts, with long hallways and rows of classrooms, are no longer the norm as school districts come to understand and appreciate the benefits of 21st-century learning environments. Classrooms no longer need to be the only place or space where students learn. Mass timber construction can have a positive impact on learning and is well-suited to expanded, more open learning spaces when compared with more traditional construction methods. 

Wood use in schools can lend to healthier learning environments that promote wellness and contribute to facilities’ overall biophilic design.

wək̓ʷan̓əs tə syaqʷəm Elementary School seismic replacement | Photo credit: Bright Photography 

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Several recent studies have shown that the use of wood in classrooms creates a healthier environment that promotes both mental and physical well-being and enhances learning potential. 

Timber construction is a part of B.C.’s cultural roots and Indigenous culture. And an expressive use of wood in school design can help build a pride of place and shared heritage for students, early on in their academic careers. 

Beyond this, there are other material performance benefits to wood use in schools. This includes improved resiliency, acoustics, indoor comfort and durability of the material itself.   

Kwakiutl Wagalus School | This Port Hardy school is an example of wood construction reflective of local Indigenous culture. Turning to the Pacific coastal forests that surround their nation, the Kwakiutl people have a long history of working with wood and consider western red cedar to be the tree of life. The school incorporates western red cedar in posts, beams, and cladding, Douglas-fir for doors and windows, birch wood veneer finishes, and a maple hardwood sports floor. | Photo courtesy of Lubor Trubka Associates Architects

Sunny daytime interior view of low rise Kwakiutl Wagalus School bright sunny main entrance and 2 story atrium showing extensive use wood, including western red cedar in posts, beams, and cladding, Douglas-fir for doors and windows, birch wood veneer finishes, and a wood flooring
What's your type?

Timber building products and typologies applicable to schools

While wood building solutions are continuously evolving, it can be helpful to think of the systems falling into one or a combo of several typologies: 

Icon of 4 wood planks placed side-by-side

Structural light-frame

Structural light-frame wood, also referred to as traditional wood frame or stick framing, uses dimensional lumber to construct structural elements such as walls, roof and floor joists, trusses, built-up beams and posts.

White stack of dimension lumber

Structural mass timber

Structural mass timber is made using wood components that are glued, nailed or fastened together into larger panelized elements that are used for walls, decking (ceilings and/or flooring) and wood beams.

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Structural hybrid

Structural hybrid is hybrid mass timber construction that consists of mass timber in combination with other building materials such as steel and/or concrete.

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Non-structural exterior

Non-structural exterior use of wood can include siding, cladding, artistic expression or adornment. A range of B.C. tree species are well suited to exterior use.

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Non-structural interior

Non-structural interior use of wood can include exposed mass timber, wall panelling, flooring and decking from a variety of B.C. tree species and offers biophilic benefits.


Open multi-level layouts, spacious designs and biophilic strategies

In recent decades, the design of schools has changed dramatically. B.C. schools increasingly feature abundant use of wood, sustainable technologies, multi-storey designs and open floor plans flooded with sunlight. In some instances, along with beautifully exposed timber, they incorporate features such as retractable garage doors, little to no traditional desks and minimal hallways. 

Wood is well-suited to this shift towards more open, spacious, versatile designs. Wood, specifically mass timber, allows school designers to be flexible in their approach to layout, helping create large learning commons, as well as private places for study. As a structural material, it can accommodate both the short-span and long-span requirements, while also allowing for the differences between classrooms, which tend to be replicable modules, and gymnasiums and learning commons, which often are singular and unique for each school. Multi-storey schools are also well suited to wood construction. Along with these design enhancements, the use of exposed wood serves as part of a wider focus on using natural materials, healthy construction and biophilic strategies. 

Various wood construction options offer good value—cost-effective or cost-comparable approaches to steel, concrete or gypsum structural solutions, assemblies and finishes. This means schools built with wood can cost the same while also offering notable performance benefits. 

Kwakiutl Wagalus School | Photo courtesy of Lubor Trubka Associates Architects

Success Storeys

B.C.’s first three-floor hybrid mass timber elementary school

Ta’talu Elementary School in Surrey will be the first three-storey, hybrid mass timber elementary school in the province. This hybrid mass timber elementary school will provide learning spaces for 80 kindergarten students and 575 grades 1 to 7 students, plus on-site childcare facilities. The building will consist of three levels of stacked learning neighbourhoods on the east and west ends of the building, with each learning neighbourhood made up of four or five classrooms opening onto a shared project space. 

Construction for the school will be accomplished using a mix of mass timber, light-frame wood and steel construction. The predominant structure will be post-and-beam glulam, with light-frame wood construction. Load-bearing members (beams and columns) will be mass timber. Stacked floor plans allow for greater density and increased structural efficiency. A modular prefabricated design—a kit of parts—will make it easier to modify or add on in the future.

Ta’talu Elementary School | Rendering courtesy of thinkspace

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How wood can give schools a biophilic boost

As expertise and experience in mass timber continue to flourish across the province, an increasing number of designers are looking at how wood use and biophilic design can help optimize learning environments. Research is showing that incorporating wood and other natural materials into our buildings can reduce stress and contribute to good mental health. Bringing nature indoors through exposed wood and other natural materials can have a positive impact on our health. 

Several recent studies have shown that the use of wood in classrooms creates a healthier environment that promotes both mental and physical well-being, and enhances learning potential. Biophilia, the innate connection to nature, is relevant to everyone, not just adults working in mass timber office buildings. 

Southern Okanagan Secondary School | This Oliver school features a double-height mass timber atrium that showcases biophilic design principles, with its abundant natural light, views of nature and tree-like exposed concrete-wood columns supporting a hexagonal arrangement of visible glulam roof beams. | Photo credit: Ed White Photographics 

The mass timber ceiling of the Southern Okanagan Secondary School 3 storey atrium, including massive octagonal skylight, natural hewn pillars, and glue-laminated timbers are featured in this image

Biophilic design is a concept used within the building industry to increase occupant connectivity to the natural environment through the use of natural materials, views to nature, exposed wood, abundant daylight and incorporation of vegetation and greenery. 


Cost-considerations for wood-built schools

Material costs fluctuate and land prices rise with market demand—time is the one constant school districts can use to cut project costs. Prefabricated mass timber and light-frame wood systems are enabling development teams to streamline project delivery, and erect buildings in less time with smaller crews, in turn, realizing cost savings and delivering added value. 

Overall, wood-built schools can cut costs and gain efficiency by taking advantage of prefabrication and reduced time on site. Other potential cost savings can result from reduced finishing times and costs when structural elements, such as CLT panels or glulam beams and columns, are left exposed to showcase wood features as opposed to being wrapped in drywall. 

For example, wək̓ʷan̓əs tə syaqʷəm Elementary School prefabricated mass timber system met the procurement objectives of the Vancouver School District—it helped deliver the much-needed facility while reducing congestion and noise in the quiet East Vancouver neighbourhood.

Stacking the structure of schools can further boost efficiency, benefit the building envelope, improves thermal bridging—which reduces energy use— and ultimately leads to lower operational costs.   

Along with factory-built wood components, the report recommends design teams consider building code requirements, make an early commitment to using mass timber in the conceptual phase and adopt an integrated, collaborative approach to the project. 

wək̓ʷan̓əs tə syaqʷəm Elementary School seismic replacement | The school’s prefabricated mass timber system met the procurement objectives of the Vancouver School District—it helped deliver the much-needed facility while reducing congestion and noise in the quiet East Vancouver neighbourhood directly adjacent to the existing fully-operational school building. | Photo credit: Bright Photography

sir matthew begbie elementary construction Feb9 2021 photos 132 credit bright photography courtesy naturallywood.com

To overcome procurement challenges, school districts should set project objectives early. This may include the use of eco-friendly materials, such as mass timber, sustainable design features, carbon targets and/or a shorter schedule through prefab construction. If these benefits are to be realized, then it is critical for the planning group and its design team to identify and incorporate these elements into the project budget in the initial stages of the project.


Environmental savings for schools using wood

Wood construction is one of a number of design strategies that can be combined for school districts to achieve low embodied carbon buildings. Switching to a wood structure does typically result in lower embodied carbon. When trees grow, carbon dioxide is drawn from the atmosphere and subsequently, carbon is stored in forest soils and biomass. As a result, wood products store carbon that was previously in the atmosphere, and growing trees is a process of carbon sequestration. 

Factory-built prefabricated wood systems can offer better, air-tight construction, while reducing waste through more accurate manufacturing. By improving the efficiency of the building envelope, the project can minimize thermal bridging—the loss of heat across an object that is more conductive than the materials around it—and ensure radiant temperatures throughout the facility, which cuts operational emissions.  

As a naturally renewable, locally sourced building material—with modern harvesting practices regulated by stringent laws and environmental regulations—school districts can have confidence in the sustainability of the B.C. wood products used in construction.  

All of these environmental benefits combined can play an important role in school districts achieving carbon targets, as well as in the province’s commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 per cent below 2007 levels by 2030, and 80 per cent by 2050 as part of the CleanBC Roadmap. 

Bayview Elementary School |The use of locally-sourced naturally renewable timber fits with the Vancouver School District’s commitment to sustainability. The use of mass timber means low carbon construction—delivering a net CO2 benefit of 1,137 metric tonnes. | Photo credit: Wade Comer Photography 

Bayview Elementary School concrete and sill plate installation

Future of school design and timber construction

Now more than ever, schools need to meet a wide variety of needs—inspire students, foster well-being, remain cost-effective and environmentally sound, cut carbon and adapt to a school district’s changing needs.  

The new edition of Wood use in British Columbia schools highlights some compelling reasons why the mass timber movement in B.C. and beyond is growing, and how it can help meet these demands, especially for K-12 educational facilities.

As population growth shifts and communities expand, school districts are increasingly pressed to remain nimble and flex with these changes. Prefabricated timber systems can help achieve this efficiently, especially when conceptualized as a kit-of-parts. 

Mass timber and light-frame wood construction are proving to be cost-competitive when compared to conventional construction. And the time it takes school districts to construct and assemble a school can be shortened using light-frame wood and mass timber construction, taking advantage of faster, more efficient off-site prefabrication. 

Maddaugh Elementary School | Students staff and parents are greeted by V-shaped mass timber columns as they enter the light-filled double-height atrium. Completed in 2021, the facility serves Surrey’s fast-growing Clayton neighbourhood, providing classrooms for 600 elementary students along with multi-purpose spaces for wider community use. | Photo credit: Upper Left Photography

maddaugh elementary school 001 credit upper left photography courtesy naturallywood.com 2783x4080 73d0f39

In regions prone to earthquakes, timber systems can offer seismic advantages, whether as a new build or, in some cases, retrofitting an existing structure.  

The report demonstrates that wood can not only improve learning outcomes and offer biophilic benefits but also help schools cut carbon emissions and combat climate change.  

Ongoing education efforts will be required on the part of key industry players from the design, engineering, manufacturing, and building sectors to push the boundaries when it comes to knowledge, acceptance and understanding of timber systems for school construction. 

Overall, the report’s authors expect to see more educational facilities built with sustainably harvested wood products in the future as industry and school districts become more aware of the benefits they can offer. 

Wellington Elementary School | Located in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, the school demonstrates how wood can play a role in seismic upgrades of existing educational facilities. | Photo credit: Sunny Jhooty Photography

Internal daytime view of low rise Wellington Secondary School showing circular open library and research area with students at desks and Glue-laminated timber (Glulam)