Behind the scenes of the Tall Wood Building

When most students left for the summer break, all there was to see of Brock Commons were two elevator shafts rising up next to Gage – ugly and unremarkable. When they returned, in its place was a massive wooden skeleton stacked around the concrete spines and — piece by piece — being enclosed in segments of window and wall.

Even for students jaded by a campus forever cluttered by construction sites, the rise of the Tall Wood Building or — more formally — Brock Commons Phase One, has been impressive to watch, if only for the speed at which it was built. Between the project’s inception and the completion of its exterior was only a four-year period, with no more than an additional year expected for the completion of the interior. 

For the average student, this just looks like a decent place which they can look forward to living in once they move up from 1,500 on the waitlist. But there is a lot more to Tall Wood than just its 404 beds and a damn fine view. 

For its technical qualities, Brock Commons is being presented to the public as a prestige piece and bragging rights for all involved. It is innovative in how it uses materials, creates minimal waste and for the speed and accuracy in which it was built. Professors from applied science and forestry people will have a fun research project in the coming years and on top of all that, it boasts some promising figures for sustainability. 

At a press conference to show off UBC's newest pet project, university administrators, ministers of parliament, wood industry executives and construction companies lauded the building for being the tallest wood building in the world (which, technically, it isn't) and waxed poetic about the future of wood in BC and the world.

“We are here to celebrate the completion of the wood structure of Brock Commons,” said UBC President Santa Ono at the press conference. “The purpose of this project is to learn as much as possible from Brock Commons, and share that knowledge with professionals, faculty, students and government officials from around the world. This is much more than a residence hall.”

Go behind the scenes with The Ubyssey as we explore the science behind the building, dig into how it was designed and built, ask how green wood actually is, what it means for students and so much more.

I | A high tech Frankenstein of a building

Think an 18-story residence building made of wood sounds like a bad idea in a rainy, earthquake-prone city like Vancouver? Well, you’d be right, so it’s a good thing that UBC’s new Tall Wood Building isn’t actually a wooden building.

II | Why a wooden skyscraper is a good idea

If wood rots, burns and isn’t great at handling earthquakes, why build an 18-storey resident building out of it? Three reasons — its sustainable, an opportunity for research and helps the local economy.

III | Good looks but a lot of drywall

The architecture firm behind the Tall Wood building is one whose name might not be instantly recognizable to most campus residents, but Acton Ostry’s presence is one which is nonetheless influential in shaping the environments of UBC’s future.

IV | More than just beds

The building will consist of a total of 404 studio and four-bedroom shared units, which will be given a fairly even rental price, estimated at $1,100 per student for the four-bedroom unit and at $900 per student for the studio units.

V | How to build a tall wood building

In order for Brock Commons to succeed it not only had to set a new bar for wood buildings but also develop new methods for construction which streamlined the process and reduced the actual time spent on site.

VI | How a wood buiding can be fireproof

Brock Commons has a fire rating — the amount of time a building is supposed to withstand a fire before its structural integrity is compromised — that is about two hours, which is typical for a high-rise building.

VII | Special building, special permits

BC was the first province to allow for wooden building construction up to 6 storeys high, with legislation that has been in effect since 2009. Then B.C.’s Building Act was passed was 2015, which allows for wood buildings taller than six storeys.

VIII | Greener than Green

Brock Commons is being touted as a very environmentally friendly building. While it’s on track to be a LEED Gold Certified building but the wood building goes way beyond just an energy efficient certification.

IX | Mass timber isn’t the future of skyscrapers

There is this hype right now that timber is fantastic. But is that just a pendulum swing? According to Perry Adebar, UBC’s civil engineering department head it is. Frank Lam, a wood building expert agrees.