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OPINION: Northern Ontario needs a wood pipeline

The pipeline we need will not be made of Sault Ste. Marie steel. It will be a pipeline of brains and technology.
David Robinson, economist, Laurentian University/director, Institute for Northern Ontario Research and Development

Over the next 25 years, the GTA will add population equal to the size of Toronto’s today. The region will have to build the equivalent of a whole new city inside its current boundaries.

If we play our cards right, the new city-inside-a-city will be built largely of Northern Ontario wood. That makes the GTA the most important emerging market in the world for Northern Ontario. It makes our strategy for the wood industry the key to Northern economic development. We have to build a wood pipeline from the vast resources of the North to the huge new market in the south.

Under even the moderate growth scenario from the Ministry of Finance, the population of the GTA will grow by 2.8 million. The ministry estimate is actually conservative. Climate change will drive enormous numbers of talented people from their homes, and many will want to come to Canada. Growth as usual is not in the cards for Toronto. Double the immigration rate and you almost double the market.

Demand in this emerging market will not be for just any construction material; the massive construction project should be based on wood, and not steel and concrete. The average tonne of steel releases 1.9 tonnes of CO2 while the average tonne of wood captures 1.7 tonnes. Iron and steel generate 24 per cent of industrial emissions, while cement production produces another 18 percent. These are suicidal levels of CO2 pollution.

Even with the current $20 carbon tax, replacing a tonne of steel with wood will reduce the tax-cost of construction by almost $40. If the province introduces a carbon credit for the use of wood in construction, the benefit jumps to $60 per tonne replaced. When the carbon tax reaches $100 a tonne, the tax saving alone will be more than the delivered price of concrete or steel.

And not all of the demand for Northern wood will come from new construction. Estimates vary, but the lifespan of an average house is said to be around 40 years, while the average age of an apartment is close to 60 years. A concrete building is expected to last somewhere between 75 to 100 years. Architects expect to rebuild up to half of the buildings in the GTA over the next 50 years to cut energy costs, improve living quality, or increase density.

So how do we take advantage of this emerging market? We build a wood pipeline.

The pipeline we need will not be made of Sault Ste. Marie steel. It will be a pipeline of brains and technology. It will be a pipeline of architects and developers, engineers and construction workers, sawmill and building inspectors who understand heavy wood construction. Because, unless the people and the designs are in place, the wood won’t flow.

Forestry companies need to know there is demand before they will tool up to produce mass timber. Developers won’t commit to building with mass timber until they are sure the supply is there. They can’t commit investors’ funds to a 30-storey mass timber apartment complex unless they have an architectural firm and an engineering firm familiar with the technology. Right now, there is not a pool of trained architects and engineers in Toronto.

Even when you have the designs, the architects and the developers need to know that there are construction firms with the right skills. That means colleges have to have specialized courses for heavy timber construction, just as they have courses for concrete and steel construction. Building inspectors have to learn new tricks. The building code needs to be tweaked.

We know that heavy timber construction is cost-competitive, and green. It will inevitably capture a share of the emerging market. Without aggressive support from the provincial government, however, it could be a small share, and the supply could come from B.C. and Québec. To get those jobs in the North, we have to manufacture in the North the cross-laminated panels, engineered wood, and glulam beams that the next Toronto will need.

If the North is to prosper, Ontario has to create the idea pipeline, the technologies and the people we need to build a new Toronto with Northern wood.