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Google sister company’s timber dream warrants safe building practice search

The bill of goods that purveyors of cross laminated timber (CLT) panels and companion, engineered wood assemblies pitch to building design and construction interests continues to baffle. A campaign to legitimize CLT as viable for mid- to high-rise building is taking shape substantively and symbolically: Recent International Code Council hearings saw mass timber proponents look beyond an 85-ft. height threshold for local building code-sanctioned application of their products. Wood product cheerleaders, meanwhile, skirt matters like occupant safety but stress environmental or building practice milestones when presenting a mid- or high-rise structure for which mass timber is the primary load-bearing material.

CLT and glue-laminated timber building practice could receive a substantive and symbolic boost with an eastern Toronto waterfront development plan unveiled last month by Sidewalk Labs LLC, an urban environment-driven business under Google parent company Alphabet Inc. CLT and glulam are the structural components on deck for low- to high-rise buildings in Sidewalk Toronto, whose Master Innovations and Development Plan tracks millions in residential and commercial space square footage through 2040.

“Across nearly every dimension of urban life—mobility, sustainability, public realm, buildings, and digital innovation—the plan breaks new ground,” including “the first neighborhood built entirely of mass timber,” notes Sidewalk Labs, which characterizes the material as “easier to manufacture and better for the environment than concrete or steel, yet just as strong and fire-resistant.”

With an adjacent water source on the order of Lake Ontario, why not pile combustible building materials on a sprawling urban development?

Sidewalk Labs would help underwrite a mill sourcing Canadian timber to fabricate “a library of building parts. Such a factory would catalyze a new Ontario-based sustainable timber industry and create roughly 2,500 jobs over 20 years.” The firm would participate with local developers and agencies in a 20-year Sidewalk Toronto build out, to include a new Canadian headquarters for Google.

Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff cites a $1.3 billion commitment to building investment and project support functions. In a late-June blog post announcing the 1,500-page “Toronto Tomorrow: A New Approach for Inclusive Growth” plan, he describes “a project that generates an extraordinary number of jobs and economic benefits for Torontonians, while achieving new levels of environmental sustainability and establishing a new model for urban innovation.”

“Toronto Tomorrow” samples discredited claims about the carbon merits of wood versus competing building products, and suggests the factory aspect of mass timber components will translate to cost savings and a higher volume of affordable housing units in Sidewalk Toronto. A rosy outlook with mass timber production viewed in economic, project deliverable and sustainability terms begs: Did Sidewalk Labs officials confer with Concrete Ontario, the Canadian Precast/Prestressed Concrete Institute or Canadian Concrete Masonry Producers Association on how a) Cast-in-place, precast and block construction practitioners are responding to developer requirements driving shorter project schedules; and, b) Ontario’s cement and aggregate producers—longtime contributors to the local and regional economies—anchor a sustainable concrete material or product value chain whose environmental metrics pace or surpass those of mass timber?

Sidewalk Labs has an impressive plan for a cutting edge urban environment. A few Google searches on noncombustible building materials and plausible carbon accounting for concrete, steel and wood products will serve Sidewalk Toronto residents and tenants well, especially if the algorithms yield results ranking safety, quality and integrity higher than timber industry job creation.