The developer of a proposed new office building at the edge of Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood aims to use Ontario-grown wood to bring innovation to an area known for its leafy canopies.
Planning is well under way for the Leaside Innovation Centre, a 77,000-square-foot, six-storey office project to be built on a site now occupied by a flooring store about one-tenth that size.
The project, which is being marketed as office condominium units to businesses, will be a mass timber constructed building. Its frame will be made from “glulam” – glued, laminated timber – instead of steel girders.
In two years, I don’t think [mass timber] construction is even going to be news.— Charles Goldsmith, president of Beeches Development Inc.
Developer Charles Goldsmith, president of Beeches Development Inc., says he’s taking up promising new opportunities offered by changes in the neighbourhood, building regulations and the world, as Canada and other countries seek to address the climate crisis.
It will cost up to $40-million and take two years to build once construction begins, which Mr. Goldsmith hopes will be later this year, once enough units have been presold. Each floor has been offered for sale, but at some point, it’s conceivable that a single buyer might want the entire building, he says.
“I came to the conclusion that Leaside is an exciting area that’s going to have tremendous activity,” says Mr. Goldsmith, who already owned the property with partner Peter Schwartz.
The neighbourhood has long been partly residential, with some of the fastest-selling, most coveted upper middle class homes in Canada. Leaside also has a long commercial and industrial history on its eastern side, where the innovation centre is to be built. At various times the area has been home to a munitions factory and even an aerodrome with a landing strip, from 1917 to 1931.
Both the residential and commercial/industrial parts are about to get a big transportation boost, with a new light-rail transit (LRT) line under construction along nearby Eglinton Avenue.
Meanwhile, the Ontario Building Code has been updated to allow larger mass timber buildings. This has happened partly as mass timber technology has advanced and partly in recognition that wood is a less carbon-intensive construction material than steel – important as Canada and other countries seek to slow down climate change.
Mr. Goldsmith hopes that the combination of environment-friendly construction, a retro look and easy transit access will attract high-tech businesses and workers in fields such as industrial design and app development.
“The Crosstown [Eglinton’s LRT line] changes everything,” he says. The 19-kilometre Crosstown line, under construction since 2011 and scheduled to open later this year, will include a major station that’s five minutes’ walking distance from the new building.
Both Mr. Goldsmith and the building’s architect Greg Latimer, principal at studioCanoo, say that the building is being designed to address not only environmental issues, but also to be attractive to workers who are wondering whether it will be safe enough to return to offices on a regular basis as the post-COVID-19 era approaches.
“We’re using underfloor air ventilation, for example,” Mr. Latimer says. “It’s not only economical; you can ‘tune’ the air distribution in it to respond to ultraviolet light, which can filter out viruses.”
He adds that people are looking for the latest measures to reduce contaminants and improve air quality.
The use of glulam timber and cross-laminated timber (CLT) floor plates is the most exciting aspect of the project for both the developer and the architect. Canadian Forest Industries has reported that “across Canada, mass timber is experiencing a renaissance,” and that the global market for mass timber buildings is expected to reach $16.6-trillion by 2025.
Mass timber is less carbon-intensive than conventional construction materials because the renewable forests used for building materials store carbon, rather than spew out greenhouse gases, which happens when steel is made from iron and coal. (The steel industry is developing more carbon-friendly production methods, such as replacing coal with hydrogen, but most steelmaking still involves burning coal.)
Mass timber beams are also about 25-per-cent lighter than steel ones, which means that to secure them in the foundation they need less concrete, which is another carbon-intensive building material.
Mr. Latimer says that urban buildings are responsible for about 40 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions (including heating and cooling), so construction or materials that reduce this help the planet.
What’s more, studies have shown that in a fire, mass timber is more structurally stable than steel.
The building will use wood produced by Element5, a company which was founded in Quebec and in 2019 opened a 125,000-square-foot, $50-million plant in St. Thomas, Ont., that can produce up to 45,000 square feet of beams, posts, floors and panels a year.
The Leaside Innovation Centre will be within a six-storey limit for mass timber buildings that was in place in most of Canada until last year, when the National Building Code was updated to allow structures of 12 storeys. It’s up to provinces and territories to harmonize their own building codes to the federal code, which Ontario did last year.
Mr. Goldsmith says six storeys is a good size for the neighbourhood and will inspire confidence among prospective workers.
“We’ll have elevators but if something happens you can always walk up and down the stairs. It’s important for people to come to work in building that they’re comfortable in,” he says.
With its wood beams, flatiron shape and brick veneer, the building is being designed to evoke Leaside’s earlier businesses, while attracting technology and design companies that tend to cluster farther downtown.
“We can cater to people who want to walk to work, ride their bikes or take the LRT,” Mr. Goldsmith adds.
Mr. Latimer says that one of the biggest challenges has been waiting for the City of Toronto to align its internal policies on the number of parking spaces a building of this size requires.
“We’ve eliminated an entire sublevel of underground parking because we think we can get by with 68 spaces, 20 per cent with electric plug-ins, as well as 30 bicycle parking spots. If we went by the city’s transportation guidelines, we’d need to have 108 spaces,” he says.
“It’s ironic because the city’s active transportation policy encourages public transit, cycling and walking, but the transportation department has made us do endless studies to demonstrate that we don’t need more car parking.”
Mass timber construction is already cost-competitive with conventional concrete and steel construction, he adds.
While it’s nice to be innovative, Mr. Goldsmith says he expects mass timber to be commonplace by the time his building is complete.
“It’s healthy and safe, with a lower carbon footprint than steel. In two years, I don’t think this kind of construction is even going to be news.”