Standing Tall: Brock Commons Tallwood House, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
Because it’s 2018, tall wood and mass timber are here to stay. In the race to be the tallest wood tower in the world, he current title-holder, as of this writing, is Brock Commons Tallwood House, an 18-storey student residence at the University of British Columbia, designed by Acton Ostry Architects (AOA) in Vancouver. As Bruce Haden reported in this magazine during the building’s construction last year (See “Reaching New Heights,” Canadian Architect, February 2017), we know that mass timber is light, fast and clean; it’s good for the environment and for the Canadian forestry sector. For anyone still wondering why we don’t see more tall wood buildings, it remains largely a regulatory issue, as building codes scramble to catch up with the advances in material and construction methodology.
AOA principal Russell Acton, approached this project as “a highly practical challenge with no ego,” and set out to deliver a mass-wood building that could be easily replicated by commercial developers. This workaday approach dovetailed nicely with the client’s goal to open a new student residence on time and on budget. The university’s Student Housing and Hospitality Services department (SHHS) is in the midst of a five-year building plan to deliver 4,000 new beds for on-campus housing. From the beginning of the project, AOA and SHHS set out to do a job with everyone working from the same page: Keep it simple. Get it Built.
What got built is a mass-timber hybrid structure. The ground floor, stair and elevator cores are concrete. The superstructure is comprised of a two-way cross-laminated timber (CLT) floor slab supported on glue-laminated columns with steel connections. The enclosure is made of prefabricated, steel-stud panels with pre-installed windows and high-pressure laminate cladding. The timber structure is covered with multiple layers of drywall to satisfy fire-protection regulations and concrete topping for acoustical requirements.
Architecturally, this is a slim machine of a building, the rectilinear extrusion of a narrow site located between a parking structure and Walter Gage Road in the northeast corner of campus. There are two main entrances tucked under a long exposed CLT canopy on the north side of the building. One door opens for the 300 first-year commuter students assigned to the Tallwood Collegium—one of a number of staffed flexible amenity spaces across campus to help “ease the transition to university life.” It operates somewhat like the clubhouse at an all-inclusive resort. The Collegium space is a long, open lounge along the fully glazed north and east sides of the building. A large central kitchen with oversized island and a two-sided fireplace organize the space into four or five different zones.
The second front door leads residents into the main lobby, off which various amenity rooms spiral: laundry, meeting rooms, lounge. A long all-white corridor to the east leads to washrooms, lockers and utility spaces. The elevator core is tucked at the rear of the main foyer. On each residence level of the building, which are identical from floors two to seventeen, a large south-facing window brings daylight and long views into the small elevator lobby at each floor. The 272 single-occupancy units are efficiently deployed along narrow double-loaded corridors running east-west with a door at either end leading to four-person units, which owe their generous space to the expediency of the circulation pattern. On the 18th floor, the west quad-unit is substituted for a communal study lounge. Here, the ceilings rise higher and the rough timber columns are exposed and quietly at home within a well-detailed millwork interior.
While the upper-level plans are resolved into logical harmony with the short spans and repetition demanded by the timber structure, the ground floor suffers from a lack of focus. Residents enter as readily from the rear lane as from the main road, yet the architecture projects a clear hierarchical attitude toward front and back. Vagaries of the plan turn the relative freedom of a concrete structure into a liability: columns and wall alignments appear to shift for no other reason than to solve micro-scale interior space planning. The result is an overly complicated arrangement of spaces for such a small floor plate with no real sense of arrival.
Some of these issues may suggest conflicting goals within the university’s mandate for its students. Such as: how to remain open, but also safe and secure. How to foster interaction between students while controlling access to variously administered program spaces. How to allow young people their freedom while mitigating their risk and the university’s liability. This plays out in the appointment of two separate areas for different student groups—one for the tower’s live-in residents; and the other, called the Collegium, for commuter students—on opposing sides of the building and continues more subtly through the assortment of keys, keycards, and keycodes that regulate access to the various areas of the building from common spaces and individual units, to each bedroom in the quad-units, each separate meeting room, storage cubbies and kitchen facilities within rooms. It’s great to have a dedicated “home” for commuters within the building, and important to regulate who enters each section, yet it’s odd for two similar cohorts to lounge within a few feet of one another, often in full view of one another, without having the possibility of joining the other group. To be clear, I get it: a home on campus for commuters, embedded as this one is within a residential tower, is much better than no home at all. But it unintentionally imparts a level of social control that can seem frustrating and heavy-handed.
Beyond the exposed CLT canopy and the dozen or so timber columns in the Study Lounge, the largest expression of wood isn’t actually wood at all. The exterior building is clad in vertical strips of Trespa, a high-pressure resin panel. The panels at window locations are dark grey, while panels between are printed with a faux woodgrain, effectively turning the building into an 18-story billboard—the literal image of tall wood. This simulacrum is one of the most distinctive elements of the building and, given that the project continues to attract wide-ranging attention from, according to the SHHS, “government … the National Resource Council … green people, wood people, developers … tour buses.” Maybe a billboard building isn’t such a bad idea. But this just points out the difficulty in talking about Brock Commons in architectural terms, beyond technical achievement.
The architectural expectations and measure of success for tall-wood buildings are currently quite low and can be described as: “Can it get built?” and “Is the wood exposed?” By the first measure, Brock Commons is a success. As for the second, Acton asserts that exposed timber in tall buildings will remain the purview of “elite image-conscious corporations and luxury housing.” In fact, the next significant tall wood project poised to come online in Vancouver is Shigeru Ban’s 19-storey hybrid mass-timber luxury housing addition to Arthur Erickson’s Evergreen Building.
Insofar as creating an ordinary high-rise building with mass timber, providing student beds on time and on budget, and promoting innovation and new technology to the wider world, then the Tallwood House stakeholders have pulled it off. Brock Commons demonstrates a model of tall-wood for the people. But beyond the very constrained goals of the project team, it falls short of great architecture. Brock Commons Tallwood House helps industry and regulators take important steps toward a future of mass-timber buildings. One hope is that these future tall-wood buildings will exceed the mere achievement of getting built, and will rise to the level of the best buildings made from of any material.
Courtney Healey is an architect at Public: Architecture + Communication in Vancouver.
Photography by Michael Elkan.