Heartwood the Beach Condos is poised to become Toronto’s debut six-storey wood-frame development. The collection of 40 luxury suites, set to rise on the northeast corner of Queen Street and Woodbine Avenue, is scheduled to enter construction this spring.
Its associated building permit application marked Toronto’s first since a Jan. 1, 2015, Ontario Building Code change lifted the height limit on wood-frame structures from four storeys to six. Fieldgate Urban, along with project partner Hullmark Developments, got out in front by selecting a site that was already zoned for six storeys — a rarity in a city where much of the zoning is outdated.
As Richard Witt, principal at Quadrangle Architects, explains, avoiding a rezoning application meant avoiding the uncertainty that comes along with it. Although this decision facilitated speed to market, it also meant adhering to zoning geared toward concrete construction.
In some ways, this posed a challenge. Whereas concrete lends to terracing, which delivers the transitions in scale required by urban design guidelines, wood demands regular stacking.
“Wood doesn’t like to step in the same ways that are easier to do with concrete or steel, so in fact the end result for this project was that we didn’t use all the available density,” says Witt, “which sounds crazy, because everybody usually wants to get every single square foot of density.”
The decision forced the project team to focus on the qualitative over the quantitative, as the architect puts it. In practical terms, that translated to separating the cost of the units from their size as measured in square feet.
Despite zoning geared toward concrete construction, the site was in other ways ripe for wood-frame construction. For one, it had less-than-ideal load-bearing capacity, which made a lighter material preferable, and for another, it was located at a busy intersection, which made a shorter construction timeframe attractive. Not only is the use of wood expected shorten the construction timeframe by about four to six months, but it is expected to shorten the amount of disruptive construction that occurs on site.
“About half of that 12 months that we’re expecting is going to be just digging and pouring the concrete foundations and the underground parking,” says Witt. “After that, the above ground will go very quickly.”
The speed will come from the use of cross laminated timber, which will be prefabricated off site. Marco VanderMaas, design director at Quadrangle Architects, notes that opting for a cross laminated timber structure over a stick-frame structure echoes what’s happening in Europe, rather than what’s happening in Canada in familiar single-family and townhome construction.
The system of thick slabs allowed the architects to draw on the warmth of the material by leaving the wood ceilings and walls exposed. Witt likens the intended look and feel to an old loft building.
Units will range in size from 900 to 1,600 square feet. Most will be laid out as flexible two-bedroom units that can be configured to host visitors with large laundry rooms and ample storage space.
“You’ve got a second bedroom which can be used as an extension of the main living space, so we’re envisioning a lot of the market will be downsizers or people who’ve lived in a house but want a condo,” says Witt. “They may have children at university who will come and stay once in a while, but generally, you just don’t have wasted space.”
As for the big three challenges commonly associated with wood-frame construction — acoustical performance, fire separations and wood shrinkage — VanderMaas points out that all materials have their pros and cons, and that every building, including Heartwood the Beach Condos, has to meet the associated code requirements. Some other benefits of choosing an engineered lumber product were that it can withstand flame spread and its shrinkage is easier to predict and therefore to accommodate, he says.
Although the building code permits structures to be made from wood, it requires the cladding to be non-combustible. Witt used fibre cement panels — called öko skin — to mimic the material with their plank format and variegated tones.
In that regard, Heartwood the Beach Condos is a prime example of how the building code has paved the way for hybrid structures, as VanderMaas highlights. The choice between concrete and wood isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition.
“Steel and concrete play a very important role, along with wood, to provide the final structure, so it’s utilizing a lot of the properties of each material to come together,” he says. “As we go taller — and the world is experimenting with taller wood structures — you’ll see more and more of that engineering approach of utilizing the different materials in different places.”
But for now, with its first foray into six-storey wood-frame construction, Quadrangle Architects hopes to make the statement that there is an alternative material choice that is both warm and workable for creating sustainable mid-rise developments in the city.
“Toronto as a building industry is very homogenous — from the smallest buildings to the bigger buildings, they’re concrete wrapped in glass,” Witt says, “so we’re trying to say there’s another option.”
Construction of Heartwood the Beach Condos is slated to be completed in early 2017.
Michelle Ervin is the editor of CondoBusiness. Follow her on Twitter @michellervin.