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The pros and cons of building high rises with wood

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From the outside, the construction project underway at 80 Atlantic Ave. in Liberty Village looks like your typical new office building.

But peer through the large spaces where windows will soon be installed and you’ll notice that above the ground floor there is wood everywhere — walls, ceilings, support beams. Only the underground parking, ground floor and elevator core are concrete and steel.

Arbora, a massive mixed use development in Montreal's trendy Griffintown neighbourhood, consists of three buildings that are made primarily from wood.
Arbora, a massive mixed use development in Montreal’s trendy Griffintown neighbourhood, consists of three buildings that are made primarily from wood.  (LSR GesDev)

Designed by Toronto architectural firm Quadrangle, the soon to be completed five-storey office and retail project is a rarity in Toronto — most buildings in the city are still made entirely of concrete and steel.

Like Sidewalk Labs’s proposal to build a high tech neighbourhood in Toronto, with thousands of condominium and apartment units built with timber, the subject of wood buildings is creating a buzz.

Canada already has the world’s tallest wooden building — Tallwood House, an 18-storey student residence at the University of British Columbia — and there are wood structures in Europe and the U.S.

Proponents tout the environmental and esthetic benefits of using the product, but some builders say there are challenges.

“There are many additional things you don’t foresee when you start one of these projects,” said Marc-André Roy, president of Sotramont, a Montreal-based developer that’s one of four partners working on Arbora, a massive mixed-use project made primarily from wood.

“It is much more work,” Roy said in an interview. “We’re doing something new. It took more energy and man hours to get through everything … it’s more complicated.”

The wood used for Arbora is cross-laminated timber (CLT) a product made by gluing wood panels in an angled manner that provides stability and force. The panels are said to be as strong as concrete but five times lighter, making them ideal for floors and load-bearing walls.

But while it may be lighter, there’s debate about whether wood construction is actually cheaper.

Toronto architectural firm Diamond Schmitt has successfully used mass timber for projects including a law school in Kamloops B.C., a trades school in Alberta, and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Diamond Schmitt principal Michael Leckman said that in those cases, “timber prefabrication reduced construction times and reduced costs.”

He added, however, that “cost savings in timber construction are highly dependent on the local construction market, the readiness of bidders and trades to adapt to new methods,” and the ability of those involved to feel confident taking risks with an unfamiliar product.

Aly Damji, a senior vice-president with Toronto-based developer Hullmark, said the cost of using wood was “generally … on par with concrete and steel” for the 80 Atlantic project.

The wood used for Arbora is cross-laminated timber (CLT) a product made by gluing wood panels in an angled manner that provides stability and force. The panels are said to be as strong as concrete but five times lighter, making them ideal for floors and load-bearing walls.
The wood used for Arbora is cross-laminated timber (CLT) a product made by gluing wood panels in an angled manner that provides stability and force. The panels are said to be as strong as concrete but five times lighter, making them ideal for floors and load-bearing walls.  (LSR GesDev handout)

“Our construction estimates priced in the learning curve,” Damji said. “Contingency was built into co-ordinating how our consultants, architects, as well as our structural, mechanical and electrical engineers, would be able to co-ordinate with wood.”

But others take a harder view of wood’s costs in construction.

“It’s not cheaper,” said Annie Lemieux, president of developer LSR GesDev, which is also a partner in the $150-million Arbora project. “Wood ends up costing more than concrete because it’s more complicated and people don’t know how it works.”

Roy said an example of that complexity is the tubes (or “sleeves”) that are usually built into concrete walls for plumbing.

“You don’t put sleeves in wood because (the wood) comes in a slab, pre-made, so you have to bore holes in the wood,” he said.

“You can say, ‘That’s easier, it’s wood’— in theory, yes. But in practice, nobody has experience doing that, so I have to get a guy to bore holes using a special drill. It’s done by a carpenter who, in theory, doesn’t usually do that.”

Designed by Toronto architectural firm Quadrangle, the soon to be completed five-storey office and retail project is a rarity in Toronto — most buildings in the city are still made entirely of concrete and steel.
Designed by Toronto architectural firm Quadrangle, the soon to be completed five-storey office and retail project is a rarity in Toronto — most buildings in the city are still made entirely of concrete and steel.  (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star)

Another challenge is the assumption that wood will burn faster. Roy says fire testing has been done on wood buildings in Canada to ensure their safety, and notes that there are also fire risks associated with concrete and steel.

“A solid piece of wood will char, but not burn. If you remove the charring you’ll still have a solid structure,” he said. “With a fire in a concrete building, there are rods in the concrete that will dilate and make the concrete explode. With steel, the fire makes it melt.”

In theory, wood buildings should be quicker to construct because the product arrives prefabricated — unlike concrete, which takes time to form on site.

But acquiring wood products can be an issue because there aren’t many companies that supply it for big projects. A director for Timmerman Timberworks, which is located near Barrie and is providing wood for the 80 Atlantic project, said the firm needs more than six to eight weeks lead time to get the product to a builder.

Despite those challenges, proponents of wood tout its esthetics, as well as the environmental benefits of using a product that “sequesters” carbon dioxide.

In theory, wood buildings should be quicker to construct because the product arrives prefabricated — unlike concrete, which takes time to form on site. But acquiring wood products can be an issue because there aren’t many companies that supply it for big projects.
In theory, wood buildings should be quicker to construct because the product arrives prefabricated — unlike concrete, which takes time to form on site. But acquiring wood products can be an issue because there aren’t many companies that supply it for big projects.  (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star)

Damji said Hullmark went with wood for 80 Atlantic after the Ontario Building Code was changed in 2015 to allow wood frame structures as tall as six storeys from the previous four. He said the decision was based on the notion the product would bring something “unique” to the market and lure prospective tenants from the standard highrise towers on King St.

Spaces, a workspace provider, and Universal Music are among those set to move into 80 Atlantic when it’s finished later this year, along with Jackman Reinvents, a management consulting, design and branding agency.

Jackman Reinvents CEO Joe Jackman said 80 Atlantic will offer his business a “sustainable and healthful place in terms of construction and specification.”

In Montreal, Arbora’s three eight-storey towers are being built in Griffintown, a hip community where the sustainable and innovative nature of wood construction is appreciated, say Roy and Lemieux.

That’s key to projects like this succeeding, they argue.

“The wood environment is very calming compared to other projects made of concrete. These residents want that,” Lemieux said.

“So for this location and clientele, this works well.” Roy added.

And as for the future of wood buildings?

“As it becomes more mainstream, perhaps it will compete with steel and concrete,” Roy said. “But to penetrate the market. you’ll need a competitive advantage.”

Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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