Location Vancouver, BC
Size 170,005 ft²
Completed 2012
Program Classrooms, laboratories, lecture halls, offices, café
Awards Forest Products Society 2012 Wood Engineering Award, Institutional Wood Design 2013 – Large, Wood WORKS! BC Wood Design Awards

It’s only fitting that the University of British Columbia’s (UBC) Earth Sciences Building is educational—not just because of its role in higher education and the institution’s commitment to the campus as a “living lab,” but because the wood and concrete structure is deployed as a demonstration project by the Canadian Wood Council. The extensive use of wood combats the high energy demands of research labs by sequestering carbon and leading to a reduced carbon footprint, and the research conducted for the structure is being made available online.

At the time of completion, the five-story building was the largest panelized wood structure in North America, even though the material only makes up half of the building’s construction. Although new larger mass-timber projects are under construction, the hybrid nature of this building has acted as an integral stepping-stone for wood’s acceptance as a viable interior structure material, on a level with concrete or steel.

Flashback to 1995, when architect Peter Busby won a design competition to design a new Earth Sciences Building for UBC that pushed sustainable ideals. Due to a lack of funding, that initial project fell apart. Fourteen years later, Busby, now with Perkins+Will, brought the UBC project to the firm. “Bringing back this player,” says UBC architect Gerry McGeough, “was a main foundation for the project.”


Of the UBC Earth Sciences Building’s cross-laminated solid wood panels, guest editor Larry Kearns, principal of Wheeler Kearns Architects in Chicago, says: “Acceptance of new building technology seems, at times, to move at a glacial pace. As one of the few building materials created primarily from the atmosphere, wood’s place in the sequestration of carbon dioxide is meaningful. Demonstration projects like this will hopefully raise industry awareness.” Photo: Martin Tessler / Courtesy of Perkins+Will


Architect Perkins+Will
Client University of British Columbia
Project Manager UBC Properties Trust
Construction Manager Bird Construction
Mechanical Consultant Stantec
Structural Engineer Equilibrium Consulting
HVAC System IMEC Mechanical

Much the way this project had been stuck in time, so was UBC’s lab. “It was like going to the 1970s,” says Perkin+Wills’ Jana Foit, the project architect. “It didn’t live up to the type of modern research the school was conducting.” Pragmatically, the university wanted to modernize operations and to consolidate Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences (EOAS); the Pacific Institute for the Mathematical Sciences (PIMS); and Faculty of Science’s offices of the dean. The idea of employing wood owes no small part to the 2009 Wood First Act that requires provincially funded endeavors to be built with wood as a primary construction material. The legislation acknowledges both the economic advantage of using a local product and the environmental benefits of using a naturally occurring renewable resource. The act, however, is notoriously non-prescriptive, and because it relies on projects being consistent with the objectives of the British Columbia Building Code, the amount of the wood used is subjective.

Perkins+Will originally conceptualized an all-wood facility, but as it designed the structure, building users became concerned about vibration, loading, and acoustics in the labs. Wood was an unproved player in the North American marketplace; there was limited research completed, and there were no active examples to sell the idea, so the firm compromised. It created a hybrid design that incorporated concrete into the lab spaces; the rest of the structure, including classrooms, lecture halls, and offices, would still use wood.


The Earth Sciences Building uses native timber and other natural materials to create a striking, high-performance exterior. Inside, the drywall used was manufactured just down the street. Photo: Martin Tessler / Courtesy of Perkins+Will


Certification LEED Gold (expected)
Site Reused previous site materials
Materials Sustainable, local mass timber
Energy Thermenex HVAC system, solar shading, daylight in high-use areas
Water Low-flow plumbing fixtures
Envelope R-20 envelope, R-30 roofs

Paradoxically, wood wasn’t a necessity—the building could have been all steel or concrete, and little would have changed from a process standpoint. “The building was designed like precast—for speed of erection and because it is very pragmatic and rational,” Foit says. “That speaks to the future of wood construction.” That future places wood as major competitor to steel and concrete from a structural perspective. Wood can be formed exactly in the same way as those materials but has obvious benefits—it’s lighter, can be easily prefabricated, has a faster on-site construction time, and has better quality control, which leads to less costly labor for erection and refinishing. Most importantly, it sequesters carbon.

When trees grow, they use carbon from the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide as food. That carbon remains inside the wood during the tree’s life, and if managed properly, a forest can act as a large carbon reservoir. When that tree is transformed into a building material, that carbon remains in the wood until it rots or burns, theoretically holding the carbon indefinitely. Effectively removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a sustainable basis requires the periodic harvesting and milling of mature trees so they may be used in products that will last for decades, thus sequestering carbon and creating a carbon sink.


In addition to the building’s structural wood, the interiors feature Douglas fir, a tree native to British Columbia. Photo: Martin Tessler / Courtesy of Perkins+Will

“It’s safe to say that one cubic meter of dry wood can sequester between 1.2 and 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide, depending on the species,” Foit says. This attribute helped shrink the footprint of the Earth Sciences building, which contained roughly 6,169 tonnes of embodied energy. With 1,094 tonnes of structural carbon stored in the wood in the facility, that figure was offset and reduced to 5,075 tonnes. Additionally, much of the wood, including the glulams used for columns and beams and the cross-laminated timber for the roof and canopy were created from Douglas fir, trees native to British Columbia.

Just as the wood makes up only half of the building, the wood is only half of the project’s story. Although the structure’s siting and how it deals with the public realm is not a green feature, Foit argues that it is “a social sustainability feature” that welcomes people into the building, putting research literally on display to the greater campus.


The facade features ten different types of stone, complete with imperfections to maximize teaching potential. Photo: Michael Elkan

The university’s Beux-Arts-inspired campus always was envisioned to have two major commons—both large squares. The grounds had been designed symmetrically but lacked a square to the south. When the proposal for an Earth Sciences building in the southern portion came, university officials quickly asked for its second commons. A new site was established, and today the building frames the oak tree-lined pedestrian mall, the south side’s reciprocal square and a new connection for the campus.

The site had another interesting feature: it was adjacent to the Pacific Museum of the Earth, and across the main mall, the campus’s primary axis, was the newly completed Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Serendipitously, the team had an opportunity to foster a museum precinct that reinforced the public realm and allowed glimpses into the sciences without ever stepping foot into a building. The façade of the Beaty Museum, for instance, is a glass box, and although the building is almost all below grade, passersby glimpse a massive blue whale skeleton hanging in the entrance. So when some of the research labs in the Earth Sciences Building required double-height ceilings, rather than excavate to achieve this height—which was cost prohibitive—the labs pop up through the ground floor of the building. The research taking place inside becomes yet another display. Matching the column spacing and canopy height continued the dialogue between the two buildings and acted as an entrance to the science campus.


Double-height lab spaces with large glass walls allow passersby a glimpse into the Earth Sciences research being done and mimic the design of the nearby Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Photo: Martin Tessler / Courtesy of Perkins+Will

To integrate a teaching element into the Earth Sciences Building, ten different types of stone, with imperfections to maximize their teaching potential, were integrated into the façade, and the high-albedo roof contains spaces dedicated to weather and wind data collection.

Wood alone won’t lead any building to LEED Gold—in fact, LEED does not recognize non-FSC wood or the sequestering of carbon in its ratings. The Earth Sciences Building does the latter and contains none of the former. But it does employ solar shading, double-glazed windows with low-E coating, and a high-performance envelope that helped it earn eight points in the energy category. Accounting for most of the energy savings is the building’s Thermenex HVAC system. which uses the same principle as refrigeration technology. A water-filled pipe with hot and cold ends and no pumps or controls functions as a hub for thermal exchange. The loop of the piping shares the warm water through the building and sends it to where it is needed, controlling temperature efficiently with zero thermal waste.

“In North America, this building demonstrates the beginnings of new construction techniques and new technologies using a centuries-old material,” Foit says. Wood may become the material of the future. The university, which now has three buildings with mass timber structural systems, has begun pursuing initiatives to erect the tallest wood building in the province. Wood is bringing new life into socially conscious design. The university can breathe better knowing that it is furthering innovations in structural design, and because of it, all of us can, literally, breathe better.