Library cards, to libraries to farmers’ markets: Wood is good!

Mark Willliamson

On a small, symbolic scale, a library replaces plastic cards with wood. Above that, architects and developers are using wood construction for its aesthetics, lower cost and sustainability.

A library in Halton Hills, Ontario has recently made a small but very symbolic contributuon to the use of wood as a sustainable replacement for plastic by introducing library cards made from Nordic birch. The cards are manufactured by Sweden's Sustainable Cards AB which specializes in wooden hotel key cards, access cards, gift or customer loyalty cards and business cards. The company says 30% less energy is used compared to plastic cards and without hazardous chemicals or additives.

Wooden library cards replace plastic. Photo source: Halton Hills public library
Pleasing aesthetics

The new cards give library users a reason to talk to their friends and feel good about using a green product, but imagine a whole library made mainly of renewable material. That is now a reality in Toronto's Scarborough community where a new building is constructed of cross-laminated timber (CLT). The project designed by LGA Architectural Partners won a 2015 Ontario Wood Design Award in the institutional-commercial category. The exposed beams on the interior and exterior exude a warm feeling that steel and concrete construction couldn't match. There is something organically satisfying about a wooden frame library as a place to study paper books. I would want to linger there. Home owners have also expressed their preference for natural materials over synthetics, as solid wood and wood laminate floors have gained favour over the ubiquitous polymer fibre carpets of earlier decades.

A hundred and twenty kilometres to the west, the new St. Jacob's farmers' market building was literally born again from the ashes of a disastrous fire a couple of years back. The building was reborn just like the forest that the wood products came from. How's that for a circular economy?

There are many other examples where wooden construction is more aesthetically pleasing than alternatives. Let's hope the days of brutalist architecture (derived from Le Corbusier's béton brut, or raw concrete, terminology) are well past us so we can look forward to the warmth of exposed wood rather than cold concrete. Concrete has about as much warmth as a bunker.

The Scarborough Civic Centre branch of the Toronto Public Library is constructed almost entirely of wood. Exposed CLT is prominent. Source:

The wood framed St. Jacob's farmers' market in Ontario was rebuilt from the ashes. Photo by Van Waffle

Trees are the answer

This new visibility and preference for wood, its aesthetics and sustainability brings to mind an inspiring presentation by Patrick Moore at PaperWeek 2015 in Montréal entitled "Trees are the answer, Wood is good." Ironically, the former founding member of Greenpeace says with great conviction that he is proud to be, like us, part of the world's most sustainable industries. He makes the point that forests comprise 90% of the world's biomass and are a sink for carbon and solar energy collection. He says that forests have a natural way of recovering from destruction, including fires, and that human intervention can improve the way that nature recovers. "By managing a mosaic of forests the biodiversity is higher. We must teach people this," he adds. He says that wood is the most sustainable construction material on earth compared to steel and concrete. "Grow more trees, use more wood and reduce fossil fuel consumption," he concludes. It makes obvious sense once you think about what goes into steel and concrete compared to engineered woods like CLT.

Patrick Moore. Photo: PAPTAC/Paper Advance
Structural steel and rebar are created in high temperature blast furnaces using coking coal. Similarly, cement is created chemically in blistering hot kilns using fossil fuels and lots of electrical energy in grinding mills. Concrete aggregate is cheap, but not appealing at all.

Whole tree thinking

In contrast, wood continuously grows and renews itself organically with free natural ingredients: sunshine, water, soil nutrients and carbon dioxide. A growing forest has a great affinity for sequestering carbon. It's true that it might take sixty or seventy years or so to grow a mature tree but it takes millions of years of years to create oil and it never grows back – at least not in mankind's miniscule timeframe in the earth's life cycle. Admittedly, engineered wood products do require some energy input but it's small compared to cement and steel. And most of the energy in a wood products mill could come from residual forest biomass, as that trend is growing. It's a perfect storm - in the positive sense - of sustainability.

What is even more enticing is the potential to eventually use the whole tree in laminated wood products. We are just seeing the beginning of that trend as West Fraser is intending to use lignin separated from its Hinton, AB kraft mill black liquor as an adhesive in plywood. Just imagine if all the derivatives of wood fibre or the pulping process could be used in future construction materials. It requires whole-tree thinking.

Catching on

Wooden library cards may be good business for a small Swedish company but it's not going to make a big impact on the forest industry and occasional institutional buildings, like libraries, are demonstration or trophy pieces of architecture. However, they do represent a way of thinking that wood is appealing and more sustainable. Hopefully, for the forest industry, this enthusiasm may catch on in multi-story residential and commercial buildings where a significant amount of money could be spent, representing a major market growth potential for wood products.

It's just starting to take hold in many Canadian cities with the help of recent and pending changes in multi-residential and commercial building codes with additional fire safety requirements. In a recent Globe and Mail article "Six-story wood buildings are a game-changer" journalist Jennifer Lewington reports that British Columbia was first off the mark with building code changes for five and six-storey wood buildings in 2009. More than 250 projects are now built or near completion.

On Jan. 1, 2016 Ontario building code revisions allow wood-frame residential and office buildings up to six storeys. Stairwells of non-combustible materials and combustion-resistant roofs are required. Lewington says that changes to the National Building Code of Canada are expected later next year, with limits on floor plate size, building height and requirements for sprinklers on balconies, closets and attic areas. Even with added safety costs, industry analysts estimate a 10 to 15 per-cent price advantage for wood over traditional materials, Lewington reports.

Wooden construction is getting taller very quickly. In recent news reported by the Vancouver Sun, the University of British Columbia intends to build an 18-storey student residence with seventeen floors constructed with CLT and glulam. The first floor, the elevator shafts and emergency stairwells will be made of concrete. Once completed, this building will be among the world's tallest wooden structures. There are other buildings of similar height in Australia, Norway and France.

In Toronto, a handful of potential wood framed building up to six floors are now on the drawing board. With the new regulations more may be on the way. Wood is good, as Patrick Moore says. Let's hope it's future is prosperous.

A rendering of a proposed multi-story wood frame commercial building in Toronto. Photo source:Hullmark