The case for tall wood buildings

The sustainability benefits of mass timber are a key reason for the growing interest in using wood products to build tall structures. Wood is a readily available renewable resource, sourced right here in British Columbia (B.C.). It has lower embodied energy and greenhouse gas emissions compared with non-renewable materials such as steel or concrete. And it continues to store carbon for the life of the building. Mass timber also offers additional benefits, including strength, design versatility, and speed of construction. As of April 2024, building code updates allow for mass timber construction of taller buildings up to 18 storeys high.

What is tall wood?

A tall wood building is generally defined as one with a height of seven or more storeys and built using mass timber components. Most tall wood buildings are actually hybrid designs, combining mass timber with other materials such as concrete podiums or concrete cores for lateral stability, or steel brace frames to manage high loads. The most common materials used for tall wood structures are glued laminated (glulam) beams and columns, along with cross-laminated timber (CLT), nail-laminated timber (NLT), and dowel-laminated timber (DLT) panels. Designers are developing new hybrid configurations every day, raising the bar for what’s possible with wood.

Brock Commons Tallwood House | Photo credit: brudder productions

brock commons exterior 2017 aug fii170718 credit brudder productions Banner

The evolution of getting taller

While tall wood buildings can be found all over the world, British Columbia has been a leader in advancing this type of construction. In 2009, BC became the first Canadian jurisdiction allowing residential wood structures of up to six storeys.

In 2014, the Wood Innovation and Design Centre was built in Prince George using local mass timber products. At eight levels (six storeys with a mezzanine plus a penthouse), the milestone project became one of the tallest wood buildings in North America.

That honour was eclipsed in 2017 with the completion of Brock Commons Tallwood House, an 18-storey student residence at the University of British Columbia. This project received international media coverage and recognition for expanding the possibilities of using mass timber in this type of construction. Brock Commons inspired architects, developers, and other building professionals to learn about tall wood design, showing people all around the world what is possible with wood.

Today, B.C. continues to lead, encouraging advancements in technology and design worldwide. A recent example is Tallwood 1 at District 56 in Langford, B.C.—a 12-storey, mass timber multifamily building taking advantage of the two-way spanning capability of CLT. The City of Vancouver have released policies and incentives aimed to promote the construction of high-rise mass timber buildings and transition to more sustainable construction methods.

Tall wood demonstration projects

Since 2020, the Province of British Columbia has invested in advancing mass timber building systems and construction processes through the Mass Timber Demonstration Program (MTDP). The program helps highlight innovation and testing which has led to code updates and technological improvements that promote the advancement of tall wood construction. Current tall wood MTDP recipients include the following.

Under construction: The Hive

This 10-storey, mixed-use building demonstrates the innovative use of timber brace framing to withstand the effects of earthquakes in a tall building application. The design incorporates a variety of engineered wood products to achieve its design goals including glulam beams, columns, and braces, CLT floor panels, shear walls and balconies.

Rendering courtesy of DIALOG

Keith Drive rendering DIALOG

Main Street and 5th Avenue (Prototype)

Designed with mass timber, steel, and concrete, this 25-storey multi-family building showcases the importance of cost-effective hybrid design. This mass timber residential building demonstrates how low-carbon tall wood construction is a viable option for purpose-built rental housing. The building, originally named “Prototype”, sets out to be a model for future tall wood housing projects that are sustainable, cost-effective, and replicable.

Rendering courtesy of Henriquez Partners Architects

Prototype rendering south view

Main and Cordova (MAC)

This 11-storey, multi-family residential building demonstrates the effective use of mass timber in a rental building to deliver 120 affordable homes for mixed-income families who rent in Vancouver’s Downtown EastsideThis mass timber hybrid building will use cold-formed steel framing between CLT floor panels.

Rendering courtesy of Happy Harvest

River District Parcel 19.1

This development includes an 18-storey residential mixed-use mass timber tower built on a commercial/residential podium, plus a 7-storey mid-rise rental building. The project takes full advantage of mass timber’s faster prefabricated construction and aims to deliver a broad selection of housing units in line with the City of Vancouver’s Family Housing Mix Policy and guidelines for high-density developments for families with children.

Rendering courtesy of Westgroup Properties 

Rendering of a building focusing on a tower.
Tallwood 1 Rendering
Multi-family + Residential

Tallwood 1 at District 56

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Exterior rendering of the new Tall Timber Student Housing, BCIT Burnaby Campus

BCIT Tall Timber Student Housing

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Early daytime construction aerial view of Brock Commons Tallwood House showing completed central elevator shafts protruding above cross-laminated timber (CLT) floor panels being set in place

Introduction to Brock Commons Tallwood House: UBC Tall Wood Building

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