stats Making the Business of Life Easier

   Finance globeinvestor   Careers globecareers.workopolis Subscribe to The Globe
The Globe and Mail /
Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels


  This site         Tips

  The Web Google


  Where to Find It

Breaking News
  Home Page

  Report on Business



Subscribe to The Globe

Shop at our Globe Store

Print Edition
  Front Page

  Report on Business




  Arts & Entertainment



   Headline Index

 Other Sections

  Births & Deaths






  Facts & Arguments




  Real Estate









  Food & Dining




  Online Personals

  TV Listings/News

 Specials & Series
  All Reports...


   Where to Find It
 A quick guide to what's available on the site



  Customer Service

  Help & Contact Us



 Web Site

  E-Mail Newsletters

  Free Headlines

  Globe Store New

  Help & Contact Us

  Make Us Home

  Mobile New

  Press Room

  Privacy Policy

  Terms & Conditions


What buildings made of timber mean to the urban jungle

Email this article Print this article

space  Advertisement

Saturday, September 14, 2019 – Page R1


Karim Khalifa wants to show me some nuts and bolts.

"Do you know what a rabbet joint is?" asks the director of building innovation at Sidewalk Labs. As he speaks, he unscrews a piece of hardware holding together two huge chunks of laminated Douglas fir.

A rabbet joint, it turns out, is a channel cut into a piece of wood - into which you can insert some hardware to hold a structure together. We're in the company's Toronto office, where their vision of an all-wood neighbourhood is being demonstrated with an assembly glue-laminated wood and mass plywood panel. More than a set of pretty drawings, it's real.

Or is it? The Google sister company's effort to build an entire urban neighbourhood out of "mass timber," or engineered wood products, has been inching closer to reality since it was announced two years ago. But there are basic questions still to be resolved, and the end result - while interesting - will be much more prosaic than the marketing suggests.

Wood is a central part of the Sidewalk Labs pitch in Toronto.

The company's effort to build an innovative urban neighbourhood has faced all sorts of complications; in particular, its ambitions to use "urban data" have raised privacy and intellectual property concerns. Wood buildings, on the other hand, are easy to love.

So Sidewalk is shouting "Timber!" It wants to build about six million square feet of offices, homes and retail space, using engineered wood components that have been precut and partly assembled in a factory that Sidewalk promises to build in the area. "Wood is efficient to ship," Khalifa says, "and quite easy to manipulate with machinery and, especially in today's world, with robotics."

It's an exciting and ambitious vision. But it rests on a large assumption: that Sidewalk, essentially a startup company, is able to quickly design and build a production line that works technically and economically.

If it succeeds, the promised gains are considerable. First, sustainability: Wood is far less carbon-intensive than steel or concrete. Second, it looks amazing.

And third, it could be cheaper to produce. There's little debate about the first point. But the second and third come with big question marks.

First: what you'll see.

The handsome drawings Sidewalk has released of its proposed new neighbourhoods by Heatherwick Studio - purely conceptual - show a woodsy paradise, mid-rise treehouses with wooden beams crisscrossing above a sunny street and balconies in which fingers of timber reach up to embrace their inhabitants.

This is almost certainly a fantasy. Wood does not do well when exposed to the elements, particularly in a climate as prone to extremes as Toronto. This is especially true for softwoods such as pine and Douglas fir, which are inexpensive and from which mass timber is predominantly made.

Khalifa is willing to admit to some spin. "All renderings are sexier than the reality," he says with a grin, "and I'm not saying we aren't taking part in that."

Those Heatherwick drawings could be realized, he suggests, with a mix of hardwood. The balconies could be made of Accoya, a commercially available product made from softwoods that are chemically treated. "Would we actually end up building as much as is shown there?" he asks rhetorically. "Probably not."

If you dig into the company's more detailed plans - not included in the 1,500-page printed version that it released in June - they suggest this prosaic reality.

Three architecture firms, Heatherwick, Snohetta and Michael Green Architecture, designed what the first piece of the development would look like.

The proposal from MGA, which has by far the most experience building with mass timber, actually puts much of the wood behind glass. Mass timber columns rise up from the ground, and after about 10 feet or three metres, are partly sheltered by a glass curtain wall.

"We've left the wood exposed where we can reach it," Khalifa says.

That's important, because wood will probably need to be sanded and refinished every three to five years.

Such details matter. Russell Acton, a Vancouver architect whose firm Acton Ostry has been a pioneer in mass timber, suggests Sidewalk and its consultants haven't yet resolved the details of production and building maintenance.

"If they get down to those tough decisions about detail and operations budgets," he says, "they may find it doesn't work so well."

Khalifa rejects that suggestion.

"We have an excellent team of engineers, architects, cost consultants," he says, "and we're confident that we can solve these problems." In other words, there's work that they aren't releasing to the public. Fair enough. But the multifaceted Sidewalk Labs proposal has been in the works for two years now and yet - despite releasing a forest's worth of verbose and vague documents - they haven't yet put forward the kinds of detailed drawings that allow their proposed buildings to be scrutinized in detail.

The same vagueness applies to the numbers. As with any idea in architecture, their mass-timberprefab thesis has to work both technically and commercially to have an impact. Sidewalk's dual promise was to create buildings that are both very tall and cheaper than other means of construction - and, so, to create a market in North America for mass timber, and to produce "value" that will subsidize affordable housing.

But what will mass timber cost?

Khalifa acknowledges that masstimber construction is currently more expensive than steel or concrete structure. But the company's stated promise is that with economies of scale in Sidewalk's own factory, this will change.

Thus, Sidewalk says it needs approval to build about six million square feet of buildings in mass timber. That's more than double what they were asked to do by the government agency Waterfront Toronto. Wood, and its economics, are baked into the plan. And the economics of that plan are murky.

If this sounds complicated, it is.

Architecture is never only about aesthetics; it's also about business and science and politics. The very complexity of the Sidewalk Toronto proposal, including its tech and regulatory aspects, turns the usual puzzle of development into five-dimensional chess.

Which means, I think, that it's a mistake to focus too closely on the nuts and bolts I saw this week.

Mass timber holds much promise, and Sidewalk has hired some brilliant architects to take advantage of its possibilities. But what they'll actually build is another question: one that's exciting but, as yet, unresolved.

Associated Graphic

Wooden columns and beams made of mass timber are one of the innovative design and building features of the proposed Quayside development by Sidewalk Labs. However, the logistics of using wood, especially in a climate such as Toronto's, may not be feasible.


Left: Metal cleats will be used to connect the wooden beams and columns. Mass-timber construction is currently more expensive than steel or concrete, but Sidewalk has promised that the cost will change.


Huh? How did I get here?
Return to Main Leah_McLaren Page
Subscribe to
The Globe and Mail

Email this article Print this article

space  Advertisement

Need CPR for your RSP? Check your portfolio’s pulse and lower yours by improving the overall health of your investments. Click here.


7-Day Site Search

Breaking News

Today's Weather


Rick Salutin
Merrily marching
off to war
Roy MacGregor
Duct tape might hold
when panic strikes

Where Manley is going with his first budget



For a columnist's most recent stories, click on their name below.


Roy MacGregor arrow
This Country
Jeffrey Simpson arrow
The Nation
Margaret Wente arrow
Hugh Winsor  arrow
The Power Game

Rob Carrick arrow
Personal Finance
Drew Fagan arrow
The Big Picture
Mathew Ingram arrow
Brent Jang arrow
Business West
Brian Milner arrow
Taking Stock
Eric Reguly arrow
To The Point
Andrew Willis arrow

Stephen Brunt arrow
The Game
Eric Duhatschek arrow
Allan Maki arrow
William Houston arrow
Truth & Rumours
Lorne Rubenstein arrow
 The Arts

John Doyle arrow
John MacLachlan Gray arrow
Gray's Anatomy
David Macfarlane arrow
Cheap Seats
Johanna Schneller arrow

Murray Campbell arrow
Ontario Politics
Lysiane Gagnon arrow
Inside Quebec
Marcus Gee arrow
The World
William Johnson arrow
Pit Bill
Paul Knox arrow
Heather Mallick arrow
As If
Leah McLaren arrow
Generation Why
Rex Murphy arrow
Japes of Wrath
Rick Salutin arrow
On The Other Hand
Paul Sullivan arrow
The West
William Thorsell arrow

Home | Business | National | Int'l | Sports | Columnists | The Arts | Tech | Travel | TV | Wheels

© 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Help & Contact Us | Back to the top of this page