As It Happens

Architects want to build a Toronto highrise out of wood and trees — and it's inspired by Habitat 67

Austrian architect Chris Precht says Moshe Safdie's Habitat '67 building in Montreal inspired his new tree-like tower that he wants to build in Toronto.
Chris Precht says wood highrises are safe and good for people's health. (Penda)

Story transcript

Austrian architects are hoping to build an 18-storey residential building in Toronto made mostly of wood and plants.

Called the Toronto Tree Tower Project, it promises it will be one of the most environmentally-friendly and sustainable pieces of architecture in the world.

The people behind it say it they were inspired by Moshe Safdie's Habitat '67 housing complex, which left its unforgettable mark on the Montreal Expo of 1967. 

We spend so much time already in a city going by car and spending time behind glass and steel.-  Chris  Precht , architect 

Architect Chris Precht spoke with As It Happens guest host Rosemary Barton about the project. Here is part of their conversation:

Describe what this Tree Tower in Toronto would look like?

The whole tower is made out of wood. Wood technology actually made a big progress in the last years, especially wood in general, to use it in highrises. We use cross-laminated timber. This will secure that the wood will not shrink or expand over time. 

So that's what it looks like to an architect. What does it look like to me as I'm walking down the street?

It's a very natural alternative to our conventional way of building. It's a very healthy environment to live in. I've lived a large portion of my life in China and I know what the pollution is doing to cities. The construction industry is a big contributor to this pollution in our city.
The Toronto Tree Tower would feature trees — and be made from trees. (Penda)

And where does the tree part come in? 

All of the materials we use for the highrise are made out of renewable materials. So it looks like a tree, but at the same time, it is also made from a tree. 

And I think you were inspired by Moshe Safdie's "Habitat '67" in Montreal — what about that inspired you?

True, especially when it comes to the process of building. Safdie is a big influence and especially the Habitat in Montreal. It was the first time architects used a modular system, but made it ... visually very interesting. The process of building those prefabricated modules offsite and having everything already installed and then just craning it into place — it is very efficient. 

Architect Moshe Safdie sits in front of Habitat '67, one of the exhibits at Expo '67 in Montreal, on April 21, 1967. (CP)
Habitat 67 in Montreal. (Habitat67.com)

It's a bit like Lego. That's what it looks like to me.

I think every architect, somehow, is doing architecture because as a kid they played with Lego. It is a very direct translation from Lego to the Habitat.

I can't help think about the Grenfell Tower in London and I know it was sort of the exterior coating of that tower that caused the fire — but would people have to worried about the fact that it was made from wood?

Actually, wood burns much different than steel does. Because wood is made out of fibres, you can know exactly how wood is burning.

Steel can crack very easily and very suddenly. You don't know when this happens in steel, but in wood you can say exactly, like, OK, you have two hours until a structure might collapse.

It's very safe actually to build a wood building and highrises. 


Why did you think Toronto and Canada made sense for a tree tower? We've got a lot of trees already. 

Yeah, that is true. I think that climatically, it makes sense to build with wood in Canada. It has a long tradition and knowledge of wood buildings and there are a lot of resources there.

You have a lot of forests there and, like Austria, it makes a lot of sense to build with wood.

Especially [in] Toronto and Vancouver, real-estate prices are extremely high at the moment so it also makes sense to build in wood for affordable housing.

Modular wood buildings use much less labour to build it. Also, the process is much shorter than a conventional construction method. 

Architect Chris Precht. (Chris Precht)

Who do you think would live there — other than you?

I think everybody has a special bond living in wood buildings. I think that is also our natural way. People who live in wood buildings have a lower heart rate, for example.

We spend so much time already in a city going by car and spending time behind glass and steel. We live behind glass and steel and concrete. I think wood just offers a healthy alternative of living.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, please listen to our full interview with Chris Precht.

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