Forest to Factory: A Modern Wood Design Education

Sarah Hicks

The media is awash with wood buildings and wood industry updates. Our collective attention is focused on the innovation and creativity that delivers larger and taller wood buildings worldwide. Powerful words are being used to describe what is happening. Words like “renaissance” and “revolution” are common and signal the massive, transformative change the construction industry faces as modern mass timber construction takes hold.

Mass timber construction has found widespread support for several significant reasons. Chief among them is wood’s environmental performance. In the face of a growing carbon crisis and irrefutable evidence of climate change, we must do everything we can to reduce the built environment’s carbon footprint and make the move to sustainably sourced wood construction materials.

The challenge is that prescriptive building codes have marginalized wood for decades. Although regulatory bodies are now moving to ensure regulations reflect the tremendous advances being made in the wood industry, there is a shortage of wood-experienced professionals. According to Reed Kelterborn, National Education Manager at the Canadian Wood Council, “most post-secondary design and construction curriculum in Canada has focused on concrete and steel; but with increasingly larger and taller wood structures being built today, there is a growing need for knowledgeable wood design and construction professionals.”

Fortunately, many individuals and groups are committed to training future practitioners and existing professionals. For one, the CWC’s WoodSMART program supports the efforts of institutions and educators to help develop wood design courses or enhance existing programs with wood design content that will prepare future practitioners to create modern timber buildings.

Individual institutions are also taking it upon themselves to develop new content for their students. A couple of years ago, we were pleased to be part of a new course created by Professor Brigitte Shim and Professor Robert Wright for the Master of Architecture and Landscape Architecture Program at the University of Toronto. The design studio called “Places of Production: Forest / Factory” brought students right into the heart of what’s happening in mass timber introduced them to numerous industry stakeholders, and gave them essential timber design experience. It was a privilege to be part of Brigitte and Robert’s design studio, and the students’ enthusiasm for wood design and the work they produced was inspiring.

The studio has since inspired a publication, “Places of Production: Forest and Factory” from the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, produced with the Canadian Wood Council and the WoodSMART Program. Students in the design studio used our St. Thomas factory expansion plans as a starting point for reimagining the traditionally insular factory building. They explored how it could be combined with new and innovative programs to ensure a strong future for places of production in the life of local communities.

The studio allowed the Daniels’ students to explore the critical and relatively untapped relationship between forestry and design. “The forest and the factory are both examples of constructed nature that speak to our contemporary attitudes towards nature and production. Each studio group provided an integrated design response to the studio brief, considering the role of the landscape and built form to develop a bold design solution that explored the role of forestry and design simultaneously,” share Wright and Shim in the publication’s introduction.

The publication has received critical acclaim from professionals in the industry. In early 2022, The Softwood Lumber Board and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) announced the winners of the 2022 Timber Education Prize, where “Places of Production: Forest and Factory” was listed as an honourable mention.

Element5 believes firmly in supporting the education of students and existing practitioners. As mass timber experts, we see it as our role to be ambassadors of mass timber, sharing information and expertise to expand everyone’s capacity for wood design. Whether it is a factory tour, cost consulting, design assistance, offering insight on efficiently designing in mass timber, or speaking about prefabrication and DfMA, we want to help. We believe modular, mass timber construction is the future, and we want as many people as possible to participate in that vision.

Sarah Hicks is a Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Element5 based in Toronto, Ontario. Previously, Sarah was a Spokesperson at the Canadian Wood Council. With more than 15 years in the industry, Sarah brings excellent insight into the growing role of mass timber in Canada.

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