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Innovation to push B.C. forward: experts

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by Warren Frey

British Columbia industry experts are looking to innovation in materials and methods to push the province forward.
Innovation to push B.C. forward: experts

Construction consultant Helen Goodland led a seminar at the Vancouver Regional Construction Association's recent Construction Leadership Forum in Whistler, B.C. She was joined by Craig Mitchell of Britco LP and Sean Kennedy of Equilibrium Consulting to dive into the future of the British Columbia construction industry.

Innovation, Goodland said, powers the modern world and everything done on a construction site, but in contrast the industry itself sticks to tradition.

"We're arguably the oldest profession in the world and we're bumping up against constraints in land, labour and materials," she said.

Land and labour costs will continue to rise, she added, and the population of B.C. is forecast to top six million people by 2041. Additionally, there will be environmental and social restraints, such as projects likely being required to be carbon neutral.

"All this means we have to be investing and innovating now," she said, pointing to the U.K. as an example where targets in the construction industry have been set for "faster, cheaper and greener."

However, she cautioned, both B.C. and Canada are behind in innovation investment, as is the private sector and pre-fabrication and other forms of offsite construction mean competition is shifting from local to global.

"If we can't compete locally, we won't be able to compete nationally or internationally," Goodland said.

Kennedy pointed to wood construction as an area where B.C. is innovating and said the future of the industry lies with timber.

"It's strong, it's green and it's a great material to work with," Kennedy said.

Brock Commons, an 18-storey student residence on the University of British Columbia campus, is currently the tallest wood building in the world, but Kennedy said there are case studies that could go up to 80 storeys using post-tensioning timber.

"In an earthquake, the structure would sway but retain its form," he said.

Mass timber is also using columns and beams in a similar fashion to steel construction and larger panels, which are easier to install on site, and are leading to faster build times.

Connections between materials are now both stronger and have more visual appeal, Kennedy said.

While there has been progress, he said, we haven't seen more timber skyscrapers because "change is hard, and human nature means it will take time for wood to be adopted for complex projects."

Wood is an ideal material for complex forms built using computer modelling, he added, as it is light, easier to modify and safer than other materials. Timber also lends itself to pre-fabrication, Kennedy said.

Mitchell continued by pointing to a general trend towards more off-site construction.

"Modular means trailers to most people and there's more to it than that," Mitchell said.

He pointed to the Whistler Athlete's Lodge built for the 2010 Winter Olympics, which was built to LEED Silver standards using modular construction.

Passive houses are also built with a combination of wood panels and modular techniques, he said.

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