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New Wood Innovation & Design Centre in B.C. could spur emerging wood use technologies
By Jim Stirling
It’s not in the headlines every day, but the plans to build the Wood Innovation & Design Centre are percolating behind the scenes, assures Pat Bell, British Columbia’s Jobs, Tourism and Innovation minister.
The all-wood construction, multi-storey building proposed for downtown Prince George has been percolating behind the scenes for a long time. It was featured in at least three Liberal government throne speeches before the official announcement was made in Prince George in 2011.
That came with a fall 2014 construction completion target, which the government is sticking to. The project has shrunk, though. From 10 storeys to “a minimum six storey structure”.
When and if it is completed, it may become the tallest wood structure in Canada, and possibly North America. But the Norwegians appear to have one hand on the gold medal for the world’s tallest wood construction building. A housing cooperative plans a 14-storey wooden apartment building in Bergen. Plans call for it to be constructed with pre-fabricated wood modules reinforced with diagonal timber structures. That building is due for completion early in 2014. And there is a nine storey wooden building in England.
The Prince George building may have shrunk but cost estimates for its construction have not. The government is being coy—and advisably so, under the circumstances—about a firm cost estimate. Most regular government cost estimates contain more elastic than a bungee cord.
Minister Bell conceded in early summer that the construction budget has increased by about $25 million, including additional equipment costs. But Bell is a firm believer that non-residential wooden building construction represents a solid value-added opportunity for the province’s softwood lumber producers.
Building code changes and production capacity are a couple of areas that would first require attention. Clearly, contemplating construction of even a six-storey wooden building where it is not part of the traditional culture requires considerable planning and caution.
It’s not advisably planned at full speed. And that caution was duly noted by Bell: “The government is committed to the Wood Innovation and Design Centre, but it’s not an overnight process. Steps continue to be taken to ensure it’s beneficial to the city, as promised, creating economic development and assisting downtown revitalization.”
Another potential fly in the ointment of the Wood Innovation and Design Centre’s future is the provincial election slated for spring, 2013.
The Liberal government is languishing in the polls to the provincial NDP opposition. But predicting the art of how people vote is always dangerous ground. If contracts for the building’s construction are signed before the provincial election, and if there is a new government elected, that would signal more dangerous ground if the price tag and circumstances rankle with an incoming regime.
In some ways that would be unfortunate. Bell says the proposed design centre if built would house offices for provincial economic development and forest industry use along with academic and research programming from the University of Northern British Columbia, the principal campus of which sits atop Cranbrook Hill overlooking downtown Prince George and the proposed wood design centre.
The centre could also develop as a fulcrum for emerging wood use technologies. And there is no reason without a little foresight and planning that some of these wood technologies could be incorporated into parts of the building’s design or at least become a demonstration feature for analysis and study for new ideas and concepts. Many solid ideas out in the world of wood utilization just require partnerships to help develop their potential.
For example, there was a proposal a few years back from a house builder in Osoyoos, B.C. Brett Malcolm called it the Z-stud. It was a beam type structure manufactured by gluing strips of wood to a diagonally positioned section of oriented strand board. Malcolm reckoned his Z-studs method used less wood than dimension lumber and is lighter, stronger and straighter.
Pablo Korach has spent a lifetime working in the woods industries of several countries and lives in Chile. His innovation is the hollow beam. In simple terms, it emerged from the traditional sawmillers’ dilemma of manufacturing squared and rectangular products from logs nature made round.
“The hollow beam innovation gives more for less, better and cheaper,” summarizes Korach. He says the hollow beam construction system is cheaper and requires less construction labour than most green, ecological and sustainable environmental products. One of the other appealing aspects of Korach’s product is the hollow beam technology significantly increases the yield of lumber from a log.
“This increase means more tree volume will be left standing in the forest, therefore helping to decrease global warming, maintain water and trap carbon dioxide.”
Korach also notes that insulation values are much improved with the hollow beam system because of the air chamber it contains.”The possibility of auto construction and the fact that it produces no liquid or solid wastes means the cost of construction will be less expensive,” adds Korach.
These are the types of initiative the Wood Innovation and Design Centre could aggressively nurture and encourage. For it’s as close at it gets to a sure bet that construction competitors in the steel and cement industries won’t sit idly by while wood use makes competitive inroads into its traditional markets.
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