By Phil Roberts…
When Lubor Trubka came to Canada in 1969 as a Czech émigré, he became enamored with his new home country, which through his young, eager eyes appeared to have forests from coast to coast. It comes as no surprise that Lubor has spent most of his career championing the use of wood as a building material.
His firm, Lubor Trubka Associates Architects (LTA) in Vancouver, are considered to be experts in large-scale wood and engineered wood structures. LTA’s penchant for sustainability and energy efficient design on their projects pre-dates the LEED program in Canada. Being an architect with an engineering background has given Lubor a deep understanding of wood properties and the possibilities it offers to designers.
“In BC, we don’t have clay deposits for bricks, steel mills, nor quarries to feed cement factories, but we have abundant wood resources,” he explains. Many of LTA’s repeat clients are First Nations communities who have been using wood for thousands of years, and wood has been an essential part of their daily life, history and culture.
In contrast to commercial developers, who often balk at the use of wood, First Nations communities don’t have to be convinced to embrace wood. “As clients, they insist on wood construction projects featuring a symbiotic relationship between the built environment and the surrounding nature,” describes Lubor.
For LTA’s non-aboriginal clients, the discussion over the use of wood is not as culturally relevant, but comes down to a question of cost. These clients feel that if a project can be built using a wood structure at a lesser cost compared to steel or concrete then it’s fine, but otherwise they do not have the motivation. There truly is a wood divide.
The politics behind the construction of the South Surrey Ice Arena in the early 1990’s exemplifies that obstinate attitude towards wood in certain circles. “Several key structural engineering firms in Vancouver said that it couldn’t be done in wood, and advised to do it in steel,” recalls Lubor. “I had to get a structural engineer from Europe – Professor Julius Natterer, a world renowned expert on wood structures. When I showed him the concept drawings of the structure, he said that it was a piece of cake and he would love to do it.”
For another project, Abbotsford Recreation Centre & Ice Experience, the municipality could not advantage a single proprietary product over another, and because LTA was using Parallam they had to also design and tender an alternate steel structure. Only when it was proven that it was significantly less expensive to use Parallam, did the municipality agree.
A country as vast as Canada, with the boreal forest swooping from the Yukon Territories through to Newfoundland, must surely be the leading country in heavy timber construction, right? Lubor’s initial response is succinct. “Definitely not,” he laments. “Canada is way behind Europe. In North America, there is not one university with a specialized Faculty of Wood Engineering teaching students how to design wood structures. In Europe, such faculties are widespread and have a history dating back to previous centuries.
Here, we have half a dozen companies who manufacture engineered wood products. The Canadian products are superior to those in Europe, but we do not have the same level of sophisticated machinery as is widespread in Europe.”
The additional irony to this other wood divide is that, though the Europeans have better design capabilities, they wish they had the higher quality Canadian engineered wood products to design with.
When Canadian clients are supportive of using wood, LTA’s expertise creates successful projects. At the Burnside Road West Townhouses in View Royal, BC, the client was an emergent developer with bags of enthusiasm, who teamed up with a seasoned developer. They desired a project that visually spoke a Frank-Lloyd-Wrightian language and projected an obvious west coast style.
It was in 2007 that LTA completed the Tseshaht Tribal Multiplex & Health Centre in Port Alberni, BC, on Vancouver Island. The Tseshaht First Nation were very involved in the design from the beginning. Some 30 to 60 people, including the Chief, Councillors, elders, and future users participated in the design development process. They considered exposure to the sun, proximity and relationship to the salmon-spawning river, and other natural and historical factors of significance that were important to them as a community. “The Chief can step out of his office onto a balcony and catch a fish for dinner right out of the water,” explains Lubor. “The Tseshaht people built the project. They hired the construction manager. They hired 5 to 6 non-First Nation journeymen, and another 45 to 50 Tseshaht workers who did not have formal training, but did an incredible job. They have a real feel for wood and its properties. It’s something that has been passed down from their forefathers. The community was involved from the design phase right until the final nail was driven in.”
Phil Roberts is the creative director of sixty7 Architecture Road.