You could call Michael Green a tree-hugger. After all, he spends a lot of time thinking about trees. And talking about timber to large groups of people. And designing things made out of wood. But first and foremost, he's an architect and he's out to teach the world how to build sustainably with timber (and maybe save us from the impending climate catastrophe along the way).
Still, despite that impending catastrophe, public opinion about wood construction has been slow to change. But an announcement from France earlier this month could be the extra push Green’s been hoping for to get Canada on board.
The French government, which Green says has been leading the green movement since the COP 21 in 2015 and the Paris Agreement in 2016, recently pledged to construct all public buildings with at least 50-percent wood or other sustainable materials from 2022.
The announcement, alongside a $21 million system of 100 urban farms, is part of President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to make France carbon neutral by 2050. Considering Paris already pledged all buildings eight storeys or less constructed for the 2024 Olympics must be made from wood, the newest proclamation isn’t particularly surprising. Julien Denormandie, France's Minister for Cities and Housing, says "there is no reason that what is possible for the Olympics should not also be possible for ordinary buildings.”
Timber construction may seem like old news, harking back to days of log cabins. But it might just be the eco-friendly building material needed to combat climate change on a major scale.
Michael Green Architecture's Ronald McDonald House in Vancouver
If you aren't up-to-date with the newest eco-building methods, your knee jerk reaction to timber construction might be a list of reasons why it’s a bad idea. What about fire? Earthquakes? Deforestation? But Michael Green has an answer for them all. After all, he’s got half a lifetime of knowledge on the matter—we’ve been writing about him at VanMag since 2013 but his experience far predates that.
Let’s start with fire—the question that tends to be at the forefront of most people’s minds. The answer might be simpler than you think. Green relates it to trying to light a whole log with a single match (read: not easy). But if a fire is able to light, it will burn very slowly and remarkably predictably, meaning that, with the help of fire scientists, it’s possible to make these buildings as fire safe as steel and concrete.
Stability? Green uses mass timber panels—young small-growth trees glued together like Lego. The resulting panels are enormous and very stable, even at 30-storeys somewhere as seismically active as Vancouver.
Deforestation? Timber construction can actually reduce carbon dioxide emission in the environment. Green says our two solutions to fighting climate change are reducing and sequestering the emissions. As it turns out, constructing with wood can do both. Steel and concrete account for about eight percent of our greenhouse gas emissions. If you were paying attention in elementary school, you’ll remember that trees give off oxygen and soak up carbon dioxide. But once trees die and decompose into the ground, that CO2 is released back into the environment. Here’s the catch: when you build with wood, whether that’s an apartment, a rocking chair or a set of blocks, that CO2 is actually stored. One cubic meter of wood sequesters one tonne of carbon dioxide, thus keeping it out of the atmosphere.
To put that in perspective, building a 20-storey building out of cement or concrete will produce around 1,200 tonnes of CO2 whereas a wood building of the same size would sequester 3,100 tonnes. Using wood not only provides storage for that carbon dioxide, but also reduces the use of "dirtier" building materials, like steel and concrete.
Rendering of Michael Green Architecture's newest project 339 East First Avenue
So it’s kind of a big deal, especially considering about half of our greenhouse gases and energy usage are related to the building industry. The implications for slowing climate change are massive.
Vancouver has several large timber buildings – Brock Commons at UBC was the tallest in the world for a while and Green’s firm has many in the works, including one that would be 20-storeys if approved.
But wood still isn’t the go-to material for the vast majority of new buildings. Green says that’s a real problem, not just for the environment but also for our industries—Canada is home to nearly 10 percent of the world’s forests.
“The Province of British Columbia, the City of Vancouver and the Federal Government should, in my mind, turn to France and say ‘You know what? This is not only in the interest of climate change, this is also in the interest of our economy and of our rural jobs which are really important for us, and so we, too, are going to make a pledge that all public buildings are 50-percent wood,'” says Green. “I think that would demonstrate leadership that we have not seen currently out of our government. France is showing us a lot of really positive things.”
Michael Green Architecture's UBC Baseball indoor training centre
So what should the Canadian government do to step up their game? There are a couple of federal incentive programs to build with wood but Green says, while everything helps, they are ultimately "short-sighted" and "miss the big picture." Green emphasizes one solution over and over again: education, implemented across the full spectrum, from elementary students to practicing professionals.
Green's non-profit, Design Build Research, is designed to fill that gap and to give hands-on experience to students, recent grads and retirees from architecture and interior design. Their educational resource, Timber Online Education, provides free high-level, broad-based learning materials on building with wood to the public as well as very detailed and technical resources for industry professionals. The goal is to make it easier to understand exactly how to build with wood so everyone, from designers to contractors to engineers, can begin using timber more often and more effectively.
In addition to education, Green says the government should invest in green business incubation. He points out that most cities are all to eager to invest in the tech sector - Vancouver's new Amazon will be over 1 million square feet - without accommodating green tech, which requires much more biological science and laboratory space.
“We really should not be thinking about the dotcom era, which is currently what we’re designing our cities around—and it’s decades old now,” says Green. “Instead, we should be thinking about the climate era and what kinds of innovations, technologies, businesses and education you need to support that next step.”
The announcement in France is big, but Green hopes that if such a policy comes from Canada, it will do even more to build an environmentally and economically sound future.
“I’ve always said we should have a carbon-first policy too, one that says we should all be picking the lowest carbon materials to build a building with—and that would allow concrete and steel to try and earn that role of being lowest in carbon,” says Green. He still thinks wood is almost impossible to beat, but that that kind of competition would do the earth some good. "There’s a fairness to that that I really like, and there’s a drive to say, 'Everybody has got to get better.'"
Green says it is “highly possible” that B.C.'s provincial government and the City of Vancouver will make a climate-conscious announcement similar to France's, but he is doubtful of a commitment on a federal level. “Brave decisions come with complexity, and this is about doing the right thing, being brave and thinking about generations to come and not thinking about next year’s political fortunes,” said Green. “That’s a tougher call with federal politics but I think the public should stand up and say ‘No, that’s not acceptable. We expect Canada to be a leader in this conversation, not a follower.'”