BC firms launch new report on wood use in K-12 schools

A new report on the use of wood in the design and construction of kindergarten to grade 12 schools has just been released. The report, titled Wood Use in British Columbia Schools, has been co-authored by BC- based Thinkspace Architecture Planning Interior Design and Fast + Epp, structural engineers, and provides a practical guide to the use of wood in K-12 schools. 

Norma Rose Point Elementary School
Credit – Ema Peter Photography
Wood elements make a dynamic statement in the learning commons at Norma Rose Point Elementary School

Commissioned by Forestry Innovation Investment, a Crown agency responsible for promoting the BC forest industry, the report is intended to be a resource for school districts, administrators, design professionals or anyone working in the education sector who is curious about the use of wood in school design and construction – but doesn’t want to get mired down in a highly technical research paper.  

All three companies are based in British Columbia, and the report focuses on local case studies as well as local building code requirements. There are, however, are a number of broader applications and lessons that can be learned and applied to design and construction opportunities in schools across Canada, particularly as they relate to alternative solutions for three- and four-storey wood construction. 

Ta’talu Elementary School
Credit – Thinkspace
Rendering of the three-storey hybrid mass timber Ta’talu Elementary School

The report, which was compiled with input from structural engineers, code consultants, and sustainability experts, takes a fact-based approach to the topic. It also seeks to dispel some of the myths surrounding the use of wood in large-scale construction projects, including the notion that wood structures are inherently unsafe in the event of a fire.  

An excerpt from the Executive Summary lays out the report’s approach: 

Wood, particularly in British Columbia, is an inherently valuable resource for the design and construction community, with a huge opportunity to increase its use in both new construction and renovations and upgrades. Wood is an amazingly useful and resilient material. Thanks in part to advances in the industry, wood can now be used in applications that were traditionally reserved for concrete and steel – and it should be a regular part of our architectural, engineering, and construction vernacular.

Belmont Secondary
Credit – Barry Calhoun Photography, courtesy naturallywood.com
Glulam beams and columns form the major structural elements in the library at Belmont Secondary School

One sector that deserves special attention when it comes to an increased use of wood in design and construction is the education sector, with a focus on K-12 schools. 

Each school project, regardless of whether it is new construction, an addition / expansion, or a retrofit, represents an opportunity to further the provincial and federal governments’ desire to reduce carbon emissions and footprints, work towards net-zero, and support local forest-based economies. Additionally, school districts have ready access to homegrown technology that is leading edge, globally. In other words, there are many reasons to use wood in schools. 

When asked about the goals for the report, lead author Ray Wolfe, Architect AIBC, noted, “We wanted to produce something that was useful for a wide audience. We’re strong proponents of the use of wood in schools, and want to make the subject – as well as the ideas around using wood – accessible to as many people as possible. We think we’ve done that here. We hope it will spark useful discussions, and ultimately lead to more K-12 schools being designed and built with wood.” 

Begbie Elementary School aerial
Credit – Brit Kwasney Photo, courtesy naturallywood.com
Aerial construction photo showing the walls being lifted into place at Sir Matthew Begbie Elementary School

The report explores a broad range of topics, in particular:  

  • the various potential use of wood for structural and non-structural applications, including the current trend towards mass timber structures 
  • highly relevant case studies on recently completed schools / schools under construction / schools in design, including three- and four-storey mass timber schools, and notes on costing for these schools compared to traditional construction methods 
  • key considerations and processes for using wood in schools, including sustainability, student health and well-being, and ease of construction  
  • an overview of the sustainability implications of building with wood  
  • the challenges to address with building codes, specifically the need for alternative solutions in municipalities that currently limit the height of combustible (wood) structures to two storeys 
  • recent advances in wood use technology, including new structural capabilities of wood, the use of Building Information Modelling (BIM) when designing schools with wood, and the use of modular wood construction 
Bayview Elementary School Cross-laminated Timber wall detail
Credit – Wade Comer Photography, courtesy naturallywood.com
Workers erect cross-laminated timber walls at Bayview Elementary School

Each of those topics is explored in detail in separate chapters, and then summarized at the end of the report. Some of the key findings include:  

  • wood is a highly viable option for school construction for a number of reasons, including its nature as a sustainable product, a reduced carbon footprint, health and well-being of students, and ease of construction 
  • hybrid mass timber construction, which combines wood with limited steel and concrete use, is an alternative to mass timber-only or steel-and-concrete construction – particularly in jurisdictions that are still getting comfortable with the use of combustible construction for larger schools 
  • wood use alone does not make a building inherently sustainable, and high-performance sustainable design is needed to ensure environmentally sound schools 
  • mass timber, when it is adequately designed and fabricated, does not need to be encapsulated in order to meet fire resistance ratings as laid out by building codes, meaning that its natural beauty can shine through and provide biophilic benefits to students and staff