Branching Out: Forestry’s solution to the housing crisis

Branching Out: Forestry’s solution to the housing crisis

Exploring the carbon-positive potential of Toronto’s mass timber structures and laneway homes

Photo: Tom Arban Photography, tomarban.com

It’s no secret that Toronto is facing crises on many fronts, with climate and housing—two issues that are deeply interconnected—at top of mind. In response to the climate crisis, the city announced a goal to achieve net-zero emissions “community-wide” by 2040; similarly, the city also announced a goal to build 285,000 houses by 2031 to ease the ongoing housing crisis.

Each crisis poses its own unique challenges—emphasizing the need for innovative solutions that can address each issue without compromising the other. For example, what would housing sprawl mean for the city’s net-zero goals, and how can we integrate renewable building materials in a way that keeps pace with development demands? The answer might be in our own backyard: specifically, in our forests.

For three net-zero prototype laneway houses completed for the University of Toronto, local architecture firm Baird Sampson Neuert Architects used an all-wood, prefabricated construction approach to deliver affordable, sustainable housing for gentle densification. This project—comprising 50 laneway and infill homes proposed for the Huron Sussex neighbourhood—optimizes prefabrication methods using renewable, carbon-sequestering wood construction and thermally treated ash siding.

“With respect to high-performance design, using these types of methods and materials offers a level of predictability for the outcome of the project, enabling trades with varying levels of skills to deliver uniform high-performance results,” says Jon Neuert, principal of Baird Sampson Neuert Architects. “This prefabrication approach can be scaled from stick building to mass timber operations, reducing on-site construction and community impact and accelerating construction to achieve cost reductions across the board.”

Timber on the rise

As Toronto’s need for densification increases, the project offers an inspiring blueprint for future developments, showcasing the potential of prefabrication methods and timber construction in increasing our housing supply without sacrificing respect for the environment.

With wood construction on the rise, Canada’s forest sector is a key player in augmenting the power of this tried-and-true alternative to steel and concrete. “The industry is seeing a massive interest in timber right now,” says Neuert. “But if it’s not regulated through appropriate, sustainable forestry practices, it can lead to the depletion of a resource that has the promise of being an extraordinary game changer for the industry.”

Canada’s forests—and its forest sector—have a vital role to play in meeting climate goals and in Canada’s drive toward a green economy. In Toronto, the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country, a healthy supply of renewable, carbon-sequestering timber is filling the gap between our housing development and net-zero emissions targets.

Minimizing damage—and cost

As trees age, they become susceptible to pest outbreaks and disease, thus rendering them more vulnerable to forest fires, which release CO2 back into the atmosphere. To mitigate these risks, Canada’s forest professionals carefully plan out harvesting and replanting cycles and renewing the forests’ capacity to capture carbon. By building infrastructure with wood from Canada’s certified forests, the sector presents a sustainable solution that can also enhance architectural diversity and offer big benefits for city developers.

Mass timber structures can reduce carbon pollution during construction by up to 45 per cent and generally require less energy to heat and cool year-round, resulting in greener, more resilient communities. Through quicker assembly and lighter structures, mass timber can potentially accelerate construction timelines—by up to 25 per cent—and reduce costs for developers, directly tackling the city’s housing crisis.

Concept for a mass timber, net-zero Montessori school in production

“We’re excited about timber and its biophilic design opportunities,” says Neuert. “For the development of a mass timber, net-zero Montessori school currently in the works, we’re working with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) to select FSC-certified products, providing us assurance that the wood has been responsibly sourced, along with access to expert knowledge about this transformative material.”

To learn more about Canada’s forestry industry and the power of timber, visit forestryforthefuture.ca.