by Antonia Zerbisias
June 14th, 2013
Original Source: theStar
Vancouver-based architect Michael Green wants to blow away the commonly held idea that the best building materials are the heaviest — steel, bricks and concrete.
Next week, at Moses Znaimer’s ideacity, he’ll explain how his revolutionary woodwork is proving that there is a better way to build, a way that’s renewable, sustainable and beautiful.
The Star recently had an email exchange with Green about why he puts so much stock in wood. This is an edited version of that e-conversation.
Q: You recently founded your own architecture firm after working with partners for most of your career. Why did you go your own way?
A: I love the adventure of trying new things, developing diverse project types, contributing to solutions in the developing world, studying the broader challenges of our time, playing with art installations, teaching students in my design-build classes, taking a voice to the streets to speak to the things I love and care about. My passion for diverse interests can be tricky in a partnership and it was time for us to close the doors and for me to be free to follow the paths I most care about.
Q: You’re gaining a reputation as the Woodman, a proponent of using wood instead of steel and concrete (and now glass) as building material. What attracts you to wood?
A: Wood is a miraculous material; grown by the sun, renewable, beautiful, and a natural container for carbon dioxide. Its strength to weight is spectacular and its cellular structure hints that we are only beginning to harness its potential in buildings.
Steel and concrete are good materials, but they have large energy and carbon footprints that we really need to consider when working with them. Our focus is finding ways to use each material appropriately and where needed. Our goal is to find the path to the lightest environmental and carbon footprint possible, while providing the shelter that mankind ultimately needs.
This is incredibly important as we consider climate change. If 10 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from the production of steel and concrete, then we should consider that wood has the opposite effect. Our two solutions to addressing greenhouse gases and climate impact are to store greenhouse gases and to reduce our emissions. Wood thankfully does both.
Q: How sustainable are Canada’s forests?
A: The truth is just this: replant trees and be extremely considerate of forest ecologies, conservation needs, aboriginal rights and a sustainable forest economy. We have a much more sustainable approach to forestry than ever before in Canada, though by no means perfect. Today environmental groups like Greenpeace understand that wood products are part of sustainable building, as long as they are sourced from certified forestry and as long as we don’t lose sight of some forests that warrant protection.
Our focus is on new engineered-wood products that can be made from lower-grade wood not previously used for structures. These younger trees offer fibre that when glued together becomes very strong and stable. The elegance is that, we believe, these new ways of building with engineered wood will offer an economic incentive for replanting forests in areas of the world where deforestation is (encouraged) by the reality that land is worth more for crops than forest. We hope our work will reverse that trend and offer renewable building products for the areas of the world in need of new housing, to meet global population growth and shelter needs.
Q: What about fire? Pests? In Toronto, we have termites.
A: Pests? Don’t be so hard on yourself. I love people from Toronto. Oh! Termites? There are natural solutions to protect wood from termites that we are researching.
My office in Vancouver is a seven-storey wood building built 105 years ago. It’s tough as nails and very safe. We have understood how to protect buildings from fire for a very long time by using large wood members, drywall and other fireproof layers of protection. Modern sprinklers and fire protection systems also dramatically change the nature of these buildings, but most importantly the new ways of building we are talking about are quite different (from) the light wood-frame buildings people assume we are discussing.
Q: We recently had a minor earthquake in eastern Canada that gave Toronto a bit of a shake. Is wood construction, especially for tall buildings, a good idea?
A: Yes. Our work in Vancouver has been to develop strategies to build at least 30-storey-tall wood buildings in our high-earthquake zone. Wood can behave well in an earthquake. Wood buildings are a fraction of the weight of steel and concrete buildings, which mean the forces at play through the building are lower.
Q: Height and density have become hot topics in Toronto. Care to weigh in?
A: The Canadian “dream” of the single-family house with the big lawn isn’t what it used to be. Of course it is still there, but now people are urbanizing more than ever and choosing to live in denser communities; choosing to live without a car, to bike to work or use transit, choosing to live closer to work and school and closer to each other. It’s easy (to call) developers dictators of the built environment, but we forget that consumers are gobbling up space in these developments for a host of reasons, and many are very positive.
I see great hope in cities and density. I see hope in creative developers and creative young people who are redefining the dream. People who are creating the drive for better waterfront parks and recreation areas, rehabilitation of older structures and creative reuse of abandoned spaces. I see hope in reducing our footprint on nature and our agricultural lands. I see hope in urban agriculture and new forms of community space that our cities are investing in.
I also see great need for better design and more investment in solutions that actually improve the quality and happiness of our lives. This is the job description of an architect. How do we make people’s lives better? How do we create an environment for happiness?
Q: I can’t help thinking about the Three Little Pigs and the wolf that blew down the houses made of straw and wood. Are your ideas what will blow us away?
A: I was thinking that book needed a rewrite. Who has those movie rights?
Moses Znaimer’s 14th annual ideacity conference takes place June 19, 20, 21 at Koerner Hall in Toronto.