Mass appeal

James Parker reports on how an “extraordinarily ordinary” student residence in Vancouver became the world’s tallest engineered timber building almost by accident

the world’s tallest engineered timber building (at least until the 24 storey Ho Ho Tower in Vienna is completed later this year). There is a race on to build tall in timber, driven by the huge sustainability benefits allied to construction efficiencies of engineered timber. However, while timber is the load-bearing structure for 17 storeys of architect Acton Ostry’s building, the really interesting thing about Tallwood House is paradoxically, its relative ordinariness. As is common in a country with abundant timber resources, building in wood was always the goal for this project, but as architect Russell Acton tells ADF, the aim was also definitively “not to create an international showpiece for the tall wood movement.” It is the first project built under the 2013 Tall Wood Demonstration Projects Initiative by the Canadian Government, offering funding for projects over 10 storeys. The project was launched to help grow the engineered timber industry, and says Acton, “help make the case for mainstreaming tall timber buildings.” The client for Tallwood House, the student housing department of the University of British Columbia, wanted the project to be “first and foremost be a modest, home away from home for students, similar in form, massing, function and finish to existing student residence buildings on the campus,” says Acton. The scale of the building was more a function of the need to accommodate growing student numbers than part of a grand project to build a tall building from CLT and glulam for its own sake. It was almost coincidental that the


t 18 storeys, Brock Commons Tallwood House, a student residence in Vancouver, is currently

building’s size plus the material of choice being wood conspired to produce a ‘world-record’ project. “Creating the world’s tallest mass wood tower was never a goal,” says Acton, “It was simply an outcome of the fact that student residences constructed on the campus are typically 53 metres tall due to height limitations, and that was taller than any other mass wood building in the world already constructed.”

Demand for on-campus student housing has rocketed recently – the campus sits at the end of a peninsula where Vancouver’s most expensive real estate is located. Acton explains: “If you’re not living on campus, you have to live quite far away.” The client also wanted Tallwood House to be comparable in cost to a similarly-sized concrete student residence. Beyond that, Government funding would bridge the “innovation gap” of extra money needed due to this being a first-of-its-kind building, as Acton explains. “There’s a bit more design time that needs to be paid for, there are some aspects of construction that need to be examined – we built a very expensive two-storey mock-up.” The thin, narrow site, on a fairly exposed escarpment, led to a 15 metre x 54 metre footprint. The building is strictly speaking ‘hybrid’ as it includes two equally sized concrete circulation cores, their symmetry being favoured by structural engineer Fast & Epp, but also the contractor, who was able to pour more efficiently.

The cores jut slightly out of the building, to provide a more efficient layout for the CLT timber used for the frame, as well as some visual interest to the facade. Acton explains that discussions with two 20-strong stakeholder panels covering timber’s fire and structural issues (required to meet



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