By Derek Nighbor and Rick Jeffery
Canadians are facing a housing dilemma. We must build 5.8 million affordable homes by 2030, triple our current building capacity. And while party leaders and voters across the political spectrum agree on the importance of this issue – an effective solution that can be swiftly implemented at scale and in a way that furthers Canada’s climate resiliency has yet to materialize.
Or perhaps, it has.
The Canadian housing conundrum
One in five Canadians cannot access affordable housing and the average rental price has risen 10% since last year. Affordable housing has taken centre stage in political discussions, with the Trudeau Liberals recently introducing initiatives such as the removal of the GST on new rental construction and investments into the Housing Accelerator Fund, among other incentives to spur housing development.
But meeting Canada’s housing demand is about more than just building affordable homes. The National Housing Strategy notes that homes must also be climate-resilient.
At a recent House of Commons Committee meeting, Federal Housing Minister Sean Fraser spoke about the opportunity for wood-based construction to help fight climate change and build homes quickly. And in late September, a federal wood procurement bill, Bill S-222, was passed with a definitive vote of 326-0, indicating clear consensus in Canada’s House of Commons to embrace and promote sustainable building materials like wood.
While concrete and steel sectors will continue to play a significant role, Bill S-222 helps ensure wood gets considered at the front end of building design and procurement decisions – not as an afterthought – in recognizing new and innovative wood building innovations like mass timber.
The untapped potential of Canadian wood products
Canadian wood products – from traditional lumber to lightweight, engineered products like mass timber – offer low-carbon, durable building materials that store carbon for the life of a structure, reducing its carbon footprint.
Brock Commons, an 18-storey, 400 student mass timber residence building at the University of British Columbia stores approximately 1,753 tonnes of carbon dioxide in its wooden structure, while the total construction process avoided 2,432 tonnes of carbon dioxide, equal to removing the emissions from 511 cars annually. Compared to steel (>1.1 tonnes CO2 per tonne timber) and cement (0.9 tonnes CO2) on a per tonnage basis, the carbon footprint of Canadian mass timber is 72% and 66% smaller, respectively.
Wood can be a game-changing material for Canada’s decarbonization efforts.
Building with wood also offers significant cost savings and efficiency gains to developers, thanks to prefabricated components that minimize on-site waste, noise, and labour requirements. Think of Lego blocks: prefabricated wood components are quickly assembled on-site, speeding up construction and lowering housing costs.
The T3 Minneapolis office building was constructed in just 9.5 weeks, versus 18-24 months for a standard building. One family in Liard First Nation, Yukon, constructed 15 timber home kits in 15 days, far exceeding traditional home building without sacrificing safety.
The forest sector is well positioned to help scale this solution across the country given the bounty of our forest resources and Canadian know-how.
Mass timber demonstrates very strong fire and earthquake-resistant characteristics, offering better safety and durability outcomes than other common building materials. By positioning the forest sector as a nature-based climate solutions provider, wood construction can also attract sustainability-focused young talent.
Can we build it? Yes, we can
The Smart Prosperity Institute estimates that meeting Canada’s 2030 housing needs would require 18.8 billion board feet of softwood lumber, which translates to 79% of Canada’s annual current production capacity.
While our capacity for building with wood has increased dramatically over the last decade, Canada can build on this momentum by dismantling development barriers and stimulating innovation with wood products.
A first step should include the sharing of strong public signals from the federal government that it supports wood-based housing solutions, such as through a federal affordable housing strategy. Clear federal support in Finland has led to the rapid expansion of mass timber construction, while the Inflation Reduction Act and Wood Innovations Grant in the US have driven their mass timber market to grow 30% annually.
We also know that permitting processes slow down construction and create administrative burdens for developers, while municipal planners executing these permitting processes lack experience with wood building techniques. A national harmonized regulatory framework, coupled with a set of nationally-certified building typologies for wood-based building structures that meet specific standards shared across Canadian municipalities, would enable more efficient permitting processes and accelerate housing development.
To ensure uptake by developers, and to complement federal initiatives like the newly announced GST rebate, the government should consider rewarding developers committed to the climate benefits of harvested wood. Incentives like tax credits, grants, or unique permitting streams for pre-certified building typologies could help accelerate construction.
And lastly, Canada will need thousands of skilled workers with knowledge and experience working with wood to build climate-resilient and affordable homes. Traditional education and training programs lack a standardized curriculum on green buildings, leaving many graduates without the skills to build with wood. Moreover, remote populations – especially Indigenous communities – face greater barriers to pursuing higher levels of education needed for building with wood, despite the forest sector employing 12,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples and hundreds of forest-reliant communities.
The federal government could help address the labour shortage through the development of experiential learning initiatives, bolstering support for green building co-ops, internships, apprenticeships, and mentorships with green building practitioners.
Canadians can look to the solutions in our own backyard – our forests – to solve our housing crisis affordably and sustainably. Canada’s forest sector can offer expedient, economical, and climate-resilient solutions, made stronger through federal government action to help unlock the suite of environmental, economic, and social benefits associated with harvested wood products.
Derek Nighbor is President and CEO of the Forest Products Association of Canada (FPAC) and Rick Jeffery is President and CEO of the Canadian Wood Council (CWC).