architecture sustainability

Building of the week: Brock Commons Tallwood House

Brock Commons Tallwood House is a student accomodation block for the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver. It was completed last year and it holds the record for the world’s tallest contemporary wooden building – an accolade it will not enjoy for long. New engineering techniques are changing what we can do with wood, and there are a spate of new large-scale projects in various locations around the globe.

Brock Commons is technically a hybrid. The foundations and the core of the building are concrete, but the rest of it is made of wood, delivered to the site in prefabricated shapes and panels and fitted in just 66 days. It’s quick, lightweight, and before anyone leaps to the comment section, fully compliant with fire codes. If it’s anything like the student flats I once lived in, the fire alarms will be regularly tested by students’ cavalier approach to ‘cooking’.

I like wooden buildings, and the interiors of Brock Commons are full of the natural textures of wood. But in 21st century construction there’s more to wood than aesthetics. There’s a double carbon saving to wood construction that makes it well worth promoting in an age of climate change. First, by choosing wood you avoid emissions from concrete or steel, both of which have high carbon footprints. And second, wood stores carbon dioxide that was absorbed when the tree was growing, and locks it away for as long as that building stands. According to the architect, this particular building avoids 679 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, and stores 1,753 tons of CO2.

Wood isn’t the right choice for everyone – I’m not sure that Dubai should start buildings its towers out of it, but Vancouver has no shortage of sustainably forested timber. That means a saving in transport emissions too.

There are a couple of new mass timber buildings planned for London that I look forward to seeing rise, and hopefully we’ll see more of them in the coming years.


  1. I got to say post Grenfell I would be a bit concerned living in a wooden tower block. I’m sure that it complies with current regs but even if irrational it would worry me.

  2. Brilliant Jeremy! As someone who comes from BC who as a retired carpenter previously done work for local forest companies, this type of wood construction presents an important paradigm shift. I am reading a new 2020 book from the library called Rebuilding Earth: Designing Eco-conscious Habitats for Humanity done by a BC architect Teresa Coady,

    She talks about how our current thinking that increasing density in cities by building taller and taller buildings reduces our carbon footprints is actually false…. She brings up this type of “low rise” wood buildings as a way of radically reducing our carbon footprint. She also points out that almost every major city throughout the world has over-built by a factor or 1.2. I think alot of this has come from speculative building practices which has only served the real estate and construction industry, but not the average home dweller.

    What I like about Brook Commons Tallwood is the use of laminated timbers – they are stronger and more predictable to the forces of nature than milled limber. They can also be pieced together not using old-growth timber that is so threatened by the forest industry here in BC.

    If there is one thing I may be concerned about in the BC Forest Industry is their constant greed for more profitable two or three hundred year old growth trees. It has also been a constant battle here in BC to reduce the ravaging clear cut practices that occur here. For example, according to the local workers and forest unions, in the last decade there is an increase in the rate of poorer grade clear cut timber being left lying to rot because the logging companies claim it is unprofitable. Currently they just pay the fines for doing so as a cost of business, while cherry picking much of the best… their ever i creasing profits are at the cost of the coastal ecosystems – even local communities which may experience heavier flooding from poor logging practices.

    The advent of engineered timber high rises in conjunction with regulations demanding first use of smaller poorer grade timber could trigger the shift required for such new generation Eco-friendly building. As well, they need to be designed using passive solar techniques and/or partly clad with solar photo-electric as well as the best energy efficiency standards feasible. And finally the companies and organizations who support such methods should be given financial credits through the existing BC Carbon Tax Shift program…. well, actually, they probably are…. though they should be given more!

    Came to here from your map Jeremy… Good work as always. Happy Christmas-tide to you and your family.

    One final note: I send you this link below to an article I wrote about my friend Fr. Charles Brandt who at 97 years old, died recently…. it’s a bit of good news story, hearing about what he accomplished over many years on Vancouver Island, and the legacy he leaves us. I think you may appreciate it.

    Peace, Bruce Witzel

  3. Thanks, glad you enjoyed the map! I’m going to look up that book you suggest. I haven’t read much on buildings and architecture recently.

    Hope you had a good Christmas, and best wishes for 2021!

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