Toronto Gets a New Old Wood Office Building

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ ignore the temporary braces

Quadrangle Architects mix old wood tech with new high tech.

In much of North America, cities are full of post-and-beam structures with mill decking floors. They are beloved by startups and bicycling millennials but are often dusty, drafty, energy-inefficient and have lousy acoustics.

Jeff Hull explaining

Jeff Hull describes the market/CC BY 2.0

They also are in such demand that cities like Toronto have run out of them. Developer Jeff Hull explains that "there's a fixed supply of brick and beam"; that's why Hullmark is building a new one, 80 Atlantic, the first in the city since the building codes changed to allow six storeys of wood construction. Hull calls it "a new typology of brick and beam combined with modern high tech."

Column and beam

Glulam column and beam meets NLT floor/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It certainly isn't your old mill decking where dust drops from the ceiling every time someone moves upstairs. Today, it's called Nail Laminated Timber (NLT) where Timmerman Timberworks nail 2x8s together into giant planks of flooring. It's then dropped onto posts and beams made of Glue-Laminated Timber (Glulam) made in Quebec by Nordic Structures in Quebec.

Jeff Hull says, "Your work has changed, so should your workplace," and a lot of companies are changing, usually to attract younger employees. The building is fully leased at better than market rates; the lead tenant is a music company that is moving downtown from a crappy suburban office building to a part of town with tens of thousands of new condos full of young workers. It's probably a smart move.

design details

© Quadrangle Architects

The high-tech part comes from what's on top of the floor- Richard Witt of Quadrangle Architects explains that there will be a layer of concrete to stop the dust and noise, and a raised floor to leave space for ductwork and wiring. Sprinklers are hung from the ceiling above; I wondered why they didn't put them in the floor and drill down, keeping the ceiling cleaner (that's how I wanted to do it in a renovation years ago) but they explained that it would limit tenant flexibility- moving and adding heads would be very expensive and difficult.

Embodied energy graph

Embodied Energy Graph/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Jeff Hull and Richard Witt both made a case for the sustainability of wood; I was impressed by Witt's presentation of this graph showing how long it would be until the operating energy exceeded the embodied energy of the building. As the graph shows, the timber (and concrete of the ground floor) has half the embodied energy of a totally concrete building.

water on floor

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Cross-laminated timber (CLT) gets all of the buzz in the press and has its virtues (such as not needing all those beams) but NLT and its cousin Dowel-Laminated Timber (DLT) have their own advantages; it's cheaper, there are no glues, it can be made anywhere and it has been in the building codes since they were written. Unlike CLT, it also doesn't mind a little water, which is a very good thing for this construction site.

glazing on south wall

© Hullmark

Back in the day, a post and beam building would be clad in brick, but today it is all “high-visibility glazing” -- to let people see what's going on inside, particularly from the courtyard/ beer garden to the south.

closeup of floor detail

© Hullmark

Architectural critic Chris Hume noted in the Star that these kinds of buildings are flexible and durable, and have had many uses over time.

hullmark entry

© Hullmark/ entry through courtyard

80 Atlantic comes out of an understanding of city-building that goes beyond the bottom-line, get-in-and-out-quickly mentality of the condo industry. The profit motive is still a factor, of course, but the approach is long-term. This building is rental; the owners will hang on to it for the foreseeable future. Thus it behooves them to build well, use top notch materials and construct something tenants want, something of lasting value. In other words, they are building for the future.
80 exterior

© Hullmark

But it is more than that. I like the fact that it is not too big, very much in character with the Victorian industrial buildings of the area, and in compliance with the zoning so it didn't take long to get approved. A planning lawyer once told me that the zoning bylaw doesn't tell you where to stop; as far as she was concerned, it is where you start. It's nice to see a developer who doesn't push the envelope out into the stratosphere.

looking up from sidewalk

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0