RAIC Awards – Innovation in Architecture: Wood Innovation Design Centre, Prince George, British Columbia
ARCHITECT MGA | Michael Green Architecture
LOCATION Prince George, British Columbia
The Wood Innovation Design Centre (WIDC) celebrates wood as one of the most beautiful and sustainable materials for building in Canada and around the globe, demonstrating that tall timber buildings can be economical and safe.
Serving as a gathering place for academics, design professionals and others interested in generating ideas for innovative uses of wood, the WIDC houses the University of Northern BC on the lower three floors of the building, which offers a Master of Engineering degree in Integrated Wood Design. Upper floors provide office space for government and wood industry-related organizations. The eight-storey building (six storeys plus mezzanine and penthouse) stands 29.5 metres tall—for the moment, the world’s tallest modern all-timber structure, a record soon to be broken by other mass-timber buildings in the works.
British Columbia’s building code currently does not allow buildings over four storeys to be built of timber, with the exception of six-storey residential projects. The province enacted a site-specific regulation to allow the WIDC to be built for academic and office use at six storeys. With no precedent, however, the project team had to prove that all life-safety requirements could be met with the mass-timber design. Extensive mock-ups, testing and detailed studies were conducted to satisfy the team, the owner, and the building officials of the soundness of the project’s approach, and its applicability to future projects.
The driving principle behind the case for tall wood buildings is environmental economics. Building with wood sourced from sustainably managed forests offers designers a rapidly renewable, low-energy and carbon-sequestering alternative to conventional building materials.
The global demand for new housing in cities has never been higher. The environmental footprint of meeting this need is massive, and has huge impacts on climate change. A widespread shift to building more of our cities’ large structures with timber would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. The WIDC project sought to demonstrate the feasibility of this way of building.
To showcase this potential, Michael Green Architecture (MGA) used no concrete in the WIDC project above the ground-floor slab, with the exception of a floor topping at the mechanical penthouse. The mass-timber structural elements are exposed as the ceiling finish in most spaces, allowing occupants to see and understand the structure around them. Even the curtain-wall mullions are made from mass-timber products.
Instead of creating a showpiece building, MGA designed a building that is rational and restrained in its approach, so that it can easily be replicated. This was a fundamental choice, made in the interest of seeing many more architects, engineers and private developers recognize the value and simplicity of mass-timber design as an alternative to steel and concrete.
With this project, MGA sought to demonstrate economical, repeatable technologies for building high-rise structures with timber, in hopes of inspiring institutions, private-sector developers, and other architects and engineers to embrace this way of building, and to push even taller with wood.
The two projects selected for the Innovation in Architecture Award are extraordinary examples of true innovation that is significant, repeatable and applicable to the profession. The projects are “bookends” of the same focus on continual research, investigation and development by two firms with long histories of significant works.