Wood’s Worth

Wood’s Worth

by Jen St.Denis
May 21, 2013

Original Source: BIV

Michael Green might be 46 years old, but he’s never forgotten the fascination of building towers out of wooden blocks.

“When you give kids blocks, at any age, they stack ’em up to see how tall they are,” said Green.

In the mid-2000s, the Vancouver-based architect was curious to see how high he could stack real-life blocks: new engineered products that make it possible to build tall – really tall – out of long beams and panels of glued-together wood pieces.

Working with engineering firm Equilibrium Consulting, Green developed FFTT (Finding the Forest Through the Trees), a building system that makes it possible to build 30-storey buildings completely out of wood. It’s an idea he calls revolutionary, because it means that wood could potentially replace carbon-intensive building materials like concrete and steel.

It could also be a boon for B.C. forestry.

Forestry Innovation Investment helped to fund Green’s Case Study for Tall Wood; in their quest to promote Canadian wood products in overseas markets, Forest Products Association of Canada staffers use Green’s ideas as an example of engineered wood’s potential.

“We realized that the breakthrough was [only] in part the technical idea,” said Green.

“The real breakthrough was just opening your mouth and saying it was possible, and over time finding the right story that connected with enough people.”

Green has yet to build his wooden skyscraper (in 2011, he lost a bid to build a tower at the Great Northern Way campus).

He’s since redoubled his efforts in telling the story, including winning a coveted spot at TED 2013 this February.

That passion is one of the qualities that makes Green an effective change leader, said Eric Karsh, an Equilibrium Consulting principal who has worked with Green since 2003.

“He’s extremely skilled at promoting the ideas he believes in,” said Karsh. “He’s skilled as well at executing them in projects … He believes what he says.”

This March, Green won the contract to design the Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George. Funded by the B.C. government to showcase cutting-edge wood construction, the building is scheduled to be completed in June 2014. The project, which has been dogged by a political procurement scandal, will stand at a modest six storeys tall, which means it won’t be the tallest wood building in the world as was promised by Premeir Christy Clark in 2011.

Green said the building’s height isn’t important – it will still be an important FFTT system prototype.

“Eventually we’re going to build a high-performance race car, but right now we’re building the prototype and putting it on the road,” he said. “It’s not going to be the end result, but it’s an absolutely critical process.”

Green spent his earliest years above the tree line, in Canada’s eastern Arctic (now Nunavut). His father worked as a government administrator. Later, the family moved to Ottawa.

Green first became fascinated with wood as a child watching his grandfather, a historian, engaged in his woodworking hobby.

“I used to pick up pieces of wood from his shop and smell them,” said Green. “I used to claim that I could taste the difference in wood just from the sawdust in the air.”

When Green became an architect, he found that incorporating wood softened and warmed even institutional buildings.

He included wood in both the Prince George airport, completed in 2003, and North Vancouver’s renovated city hall.

British architect Andrew Waugh was another inspiration. Waugh designed the world’s tallest wooden residential tower, a nine-storey building completed in London in 2008.

But that design wouldn’t work for a large office tower meant for a private-sector client.

“Andrew’s building is residential and the rooms are very small,” Green said, “so there’s lots of walls that are structural walls.”

He was convinced that wooden buildings could be much bigger.

“To build a big building, there are two things that were important to me. It had to be competitive against steel and concrete, and it had to not need a lot of interior walls so developers could move the walls around … and also so they could be office buildings.”

A global perspective is another important piece of the puzzle. While concrete buildings dominate the developing world, Green believes wood structures can compete in safety, cost and construction time.

But Canadian companies can’t expect to sell traditional two-by-fours to countries like China and India and think developers will build wood-frame houses.

“We’ve had an attitude where we send two-by-fours to China and say, ‘Hey, learn how to build like we build,'” he said. “When for the most part our wood goes to China to create forms for concrete.”

The environmental case for building with wood is also a huge factor for Green, who often speaks of the elegant solution of using the sun to grow renewable building materials that also sequester carbon. But that only makes sense if B.C.’s largest forestry companies are on board with practising sustainable forestry.

Rubbing elbows with forestry executives has given him a new perspective on big timber, which he had been inclined to view with suspicion.

“I think their heart is in the right place,” he said. “I think they know that if they drop the ball on this they go back to the 1970s.”

While Vancouver boasts some of the best wood-building engineering and architectural firms, Green said that it’s here in his adopted hometown that he has the hardest time winning people over. Which leads back to the failed bid for the Great Northern Way building.

“To do these buildings, the first ones will require more work,” said Green. “There’s a quote from a developer in town saying, ‘I really like this idea, it makes sense to me – I can’t wait to be the third guy to do it.'”