325 ha at the port of Toronto will become the home of a city made of wood. The project is the largest timber project of all times. © MGA


No room for mistakes

Article by Günther Jauk, translated by Susanne Höfler | 22.11.2018 - 12:16

If what Sidewalk Labs and Katerra are planning becomes reality the project will eclipse anything previously seen. For a change, however, this is not referring to further superlatives of height in the wood sector, but the largest solid wood project in terms of area on 5 and subsequently even 325 ha. Apart from a great vision, such a mega project also requires the wherewithal - which in this case does not pose a problem, anyway.

The company behind Sidewalk Labs is Google parent company Alphabet. Katerra, aiming at revolutionizing the American way of building, raised over US-$1 bn. of funds over the past three years and by now owns subsidiaries all over the world, also in Austria.
The specific plans revolve around a "smart city" at the port in Toronto/CA with 300,000 m² of effective area for the time being. The construction materials to be used are CLT and glulam, Sidewalk Labs informs. The Alphabet subsidiary draws on the expertise of Michael Green Architecture (MGA) which became part of Katerra mid-2018.

After building the 5 ha "test area" as the initiators call it, another 320 ha are planned to follow - everything exclusively built from wood. For comparison's sake: The Seestadt Aspern, a borough of Vienna, is evolving on an area of 240 ha. If the idea proves successful, the so-called test phase with an effective area of 300,000 m² on the 5 ha would already constitute the biggest timber construction project in the world. If the city from wood indeed comes next, it is safe to speak of a millennial project.

Smart and sustainable

Alphabet, however, is not the only global technology leader approaching modern timber construction. Microsoft is also planning in wood. This in detail entails the fundamental redevelopment and modernization of the Mountain View site with an area of 13 ha located in Silicon Valley, California. The software giant is realizing a "Silicon Valley Campus of the Future" which the company labelled the "smartest, greenest office yet" in cross-laminated timber.

With Amazon Echo (Alexa), internet giant Amazon takes a huge step out of the screens into our living rooms. In the future, an intelligent voice control based on Alexa will be integrated into the structure during production already. For this, Amazon announced its participation in prefabricated house manufacturer Plant Prefab - a young enterprise committed to ecological and sustainable building.

Opponents are forming

These developments, however, should not hide the fact that CLT is still in the fledgling stages in North America. Industry experts estimate the production capacity to roughly amount to 200,000 m³/yr - a volume that Binderholz or Stora Enso reach on their own. With currently emerging factories and several definitely announced projects, the volume will probably double in two years already.

That cross-laminated timber has potential in North America is also corroborated by the growing opposition of other construction industries. One initiative worth mentioning for instance is "stop tall wood": It is strongly and very emotionally addressing the risk potential of high wood constructions on its website. The initiators of the movement cannot be clearly identified, but the website features the hashtag "concrete4safety" as well as surveys financed by the Portland Cement Association.
While such untenable arguments can be countered with data and facts, it is important to avoid mistakes within our own ranks and therefore providing opposers with weak spots at all costs. The failure of a supporting CLT element during the construction of Peavy Hall at Oregon State University, Portland/US, was a bitter setback not only for producers and executing companies but for the entire CLT sector. Here, consistent quality - from the single board to planning and to the finished product - must be guaranteed at the highest possible level. Only then can cross-laminated timber become a global story of success.