Academic Wood Tower Choreography

Design and planning for the University of Toronto’s first mass timber building



Photo of John Peterson OAA FRAIC LEED AP BD+C


Senior Associate, Director of Sustainable Design & Building Innovation


Photo of Leland Dadson OAA CPHD

Leland Dadson OAA CPHD

Project Architect, Mass Timber Specialist




With an ever-growing interest in mid- and high-rise mass timber construction, this paper highlights the insights and lessons learned across global mass-timber precedents while providing a detailed examination of ongoing work with the University of Toronto’s Academic Wood Tower (AWT). Located on the University’s St. George Campus, the AWT is currently undertaking a delegated design process (Design Assist) in conjunction with a lengthy approvals period. This paper will highlight the common issues encountered with high- rise mass timber development, with a specific focus on the delegated design process. Careful design and coordination of enclosures remain critical to the successful realization of any building, however, tall timber structures pose an array of interesting design opportunities and challenges. One challenge/opportunity of mass timber lies in its inherent speed of construction, exposing unique aspects of risk, including: weather exposure, and the need to design and plan a highly choreographed construction process; increased building performance relative to new local energy codes; and, the exploration of prefabricated facade aspects, from traditional curtain wall and opaque panel assemblies to new hybrid systems capable of meeting increasingly restrictive building codes.


The building community is responding to the climate crisis by designing and constructing buildings with reduced carbon emissions. In combination with efficient building systems and a high-performance envelope, mass timber

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Constructing high-performance tall buildings out of mass timber is a challenge that is not insurmountable, yet for projects with restricted budgets and fast-tracked timelines, solutions become inherently more intermingled, necessitating

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Tall Timber Construction

The use of timber structures in building has long been limited by various building codes, however, recent changes to these codes and a growing number of allowances for alternative built

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Prefabricated Construction

Mass timber results in inherently large-scale elements, particularly so with structural components on tall building projects, the opportunity of prefabricating these components provides the only viable method of construction. Beyond

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Prefabricated Facades

The vast majority of modern commercial tower facades are constructed with unitized aluminum curtain wall assemblies, comprised of a mix of vision panels and opaque spandrels. A robust and innovative

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Design Assist

The mass timber industry’s revival and continued evolution have generated a series of design challenges, including limits on material and labor supply, as well as the non-standardized system approaches. Many

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Precedent Example – 25 King

Figure 4: When completed 25 King was the tallest mass timber building in Australia. (Photo courtesy of Bates Smart).

Located in Brisbane, Australia, the 25 King Office building was completed in

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Precedent Example – Brock Commons

Figure 6: Brock Commons or UBC’s Tall Wood House. (Photos by Michael Elkan, courtesy of Acton Ostry Architects).

Located at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, Brock Commons Tallwood

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Precedent Example – MJØSTÅRNET

Figure 8: Mjøstårnet is currently the tallest mass timber building in the world. (Photo courtesy of Moelven Glulam).

Located at the Brumunddal, Norway, Mjøstårnet is an 18-story mixed-use tower standing 10,500m²

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AWT - Project Background

Figure 10: Rendered view of Goldring and the AWT from Varsity Field to the Southeast. (Rendering courtesy of Patkau/MJMA).

The Academic Wood Tower was originally conceived as a steel tower and

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AWT – Structural Approach

Figure 11: Rendered view of timber framing concept. (Rendering courtesy of Blackwell/MJMA).

Significant project constraints drive the structural configuration of the AWT. First, a clear span is required at the base

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AWT – Project Solutions

The project has now reached completion of the design development phase, during which the University stipulated that the AWT must achieve 40% energy savings above the stipulated requirements of ASHRAE

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In the case of the University of Toronto’s Academic Wood Tower project, the design team has encountered challenges in creating a high- performance mass timber tower on a highly constrained

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Future Work

Upon review, this paper has revealed a number of future actions necessary to facilitate the growth and adoption of high-performance tall timber buildings, however, innovation needs to occur at all

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We would like to acknowledge MJMA and Patkau Architects for supporting the production of this paper; Jennifer Galda of MJMA for her extensive and thorough review; Greg Boothroyd of Patkau Architects for his kind edits; David English, former UBC properties project manager on Brock Commons, for providing further insight on that significant project; and Alex Lukachko of RDH Building Science for his high-level insights.

• Architects in Association: Patkau Architects & MJM Architects
• Structural Engineers: Blackwell Structural Engineers
• Envelope & Building Science: RDH Building Science
• Mechanical and Electrical: Smith + Andersen.
• Sustainability: Footprint SA.
• Microclimate and Acoustics: RWDI
• Building Code & Life Safety: David Hine Engineering Inc.
• Fire Protection: CHM Fire Consultants Ltd.

Rights and Permissions

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Finch, Graham. “High-Rise Wood Building Enclosures.” Thermal Performance of the Exterior Envelopes of Whole Buildings XIII International Conference (2016): 679-692.

Lake, Guy, Katie Rathbone, Philip Vivian, Kristen Whittle. “Shaping Australia’s Tall Tower Design and High livability Standards”. CTBUH Journal 2017 Issue IV: 12-19.

Pilon, Angelique, et al. “Construction of Tall Wood Building, Brock Commons Tallwood House: Construction Overview.” UBC Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability. March 2017.

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Vivian, Philip, Tania Gordon of Bates Smart. Email Q&A. August 02, 2019.

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