A better way to build? A local company at the forefront of the transition to “mass timber”


A St. Thomas manufacturer is at the forefront of what could become a revolution in the construction industry.

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A St. Thomas manufacturer is at the forefront of what could become a revolution in the construction industry.

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Element5 manufactures wooden beams and panels used in building construction. The company designs and cuts panels that become walls and ceilings. They are flat-packed and shipped to a construction site where they are assembled to form a building, all made of wood.

But perhaps the most revolutionary part is the idea that constructing a building with engineered mass timber is more environmentally friendly than traditional techniques.

“It’s good for the planet, and we need to radically change the way we build buildings. Solid wood is one way to do that,” said Sarah Hicks, Director of Marketing and Communications at Element5. “Wood is sustainable, renewable, and steel and concrete are not.”

Carol Phillips, architect of Toronto firm Moriyana and Toshima Architects, knows Element5 well, having designed three log buildings. She designs two more.

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“It’s remarkable, it influences my practice and the way I work,” she says. “It is rooted in low-carbon, renewable energy. We are the guardians of reducing carbon emissions in industry. »

The construction industry contributes around 40% of all global CO2 emissions and steel and concrete around 5% each of that total. Solid wood can reduce that total, Phillips said.

“The amount of carbon involved in solid wood is so reduced compared to traditional materials like steel and concrete,” she said, and it’s also beautiful.

Chris Latour, vice president of operations at Element5, stands inside a window cutout for a laminated hardwood wall at the company's factory in St. Thomas.  (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)
Chris Latour, vice president of operations at Element5, stands inside a window cutout for a laminated hardwood wall at the company’s factory in St. Thomas. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

Element5 structures are in demand, Hicks said. The company began production less than a year ago, in April 2021, and has already sold 50 projects with plans to double orders this year, said Lee Scott, director of sales and business development at Element5.

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The company has added a second shift and recently purchased a plot of land adjacent to its factory on Dennis Road for future growth. “Massive wood construction is in a period of rapid expansion,” Scott said.

Element5 has built wooden structures all over Ontario and is looking to expand into the US market. It employs more than 70 workers, having hired around five in the past month.

“Our growth potential is enormous. The forecast is very strong,” Hicks said.

Element5’s construction technique is “cost competitive” with steel and concrete and much faster to build, she said. When he struck a deal to build the new YWCA in Kitchener, the equipment was on site in six months and the building was up in 20 days, Hicks said.

He also built a new Aboriginal Family Center on Hill Street in London, called Nshwaasnangong Child Care and Family Centre, operated by the Southwest Ontario Aboriginal Health Access Centre.

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“The technology available to create precast panels has evolved and we have embraced this technology. Pre-fabrication solutions are faster, safer, and the results are accurate,” Hicks said.

Element5 primarily uses two-by-six sections of spruce, pine, and fir. It assembles sections as wide as 16 meters long, 3.5 meters wide and 40 centimeters thick, she said.

“We make panels and cut everything. We design all openings for the necessary electrical or plumbing connections down to the last screw hole. Panels are cut to fit perfectly, flat-packed and shipped,” Hicks said.

Solid wood should not be confused with the wood-frame construction that one would see for homes in housing estates being built. This is called “light timber frame” construction.

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Some Element5 builds:

  • Nshwaasnangong childcare and family centre, Hill Street, London
  • Affordable housing in East Gwillimbury
  • Indigenous Student Center at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo
  • Women’s Y Housing, Waterloo
  • Toronto and Region Conservation Authority Office, Toronto
  • Port Stanley Fire Station
  • Oakville Fire Station
  • Orillia Waterfront Center
  • WOODin, 30,000 square foot office building, Waterloo

Element5 manufactures two products, large laminated wood panels from which walls and ceilings can be assembled, and laminated wood to form beams.

“These are winning auctions against other manufacturers. They are doing amazing things,” said Sean Dyke, general manager of economic development at St. Thomas. “They build all over Ontario. They are fine.

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When it comes to the safety and durability of wood as a building material, solid wood undergoes rigorous testing and certification according to building standards, Hicks said.

“We comply with building and safety codes, just like other materials. It’s safe and the construction is precise,” she said.

A construction industry website, naturalwood.com, cited a fire resistance study of solid wood and found that it exceeded the building code standard, even without a fire-resistant coating on the surface of the wood. wood.

In 2015, the national building code allowed the construction of wooden structures up to a height of six stories. In BC, 12-storey wood construction is permitted and there is support for changing the national building code accordingly. In some US states and Europe, log buildings are 18 stories tall.

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As for the lower environmental footprint of a wood structure, while concrete and steel create carbon in their manufacturing processes, solid wood captures and stores carbon as forests grow.

A 2019 study by the Yale School of the Environment found that a hybrid log building achieved a 26.5% lower global warming potential than a concrete building. This same study also cites environmentalists saying that mass timber needs more study before it can be declared sustainable.

But for Phillips, solid wood has many positive qualities, as on-site construction is fast, it can be assembled in cold weather, construction sites are quiet, and the material is strong yet lightweight.

“I’m a fan. I’m a supporter. He has so much potential,” she said.

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Element5 was mentioned in a documentary called Capturing Carbon about the climate crisis and the role forests play in managing the crisis.

Element5 has a 137,000 square foot factory on an eight hectare parcel of land and recently added a similar sized portion of land a few months ago. She gets her wood from northern Ontario.

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What they said:

“The hardwood industry is plagued with misconceptions about wood construction that it burns, doesn’t last, and isn’t structurally sound. There is enough research, testing, and certification to prove these to be misconceptions.

– Patrick Chouinard, President of Element5

“It’s a new and innovative sector. Solid wood can be an important part of the global solution to the climate emergency we face.

– Paul Robitaille, Senior Director, Indigenous and Youth Relations at the Sustainable Forestry Initiative


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