Alphabet’s ‘Digital City’ Eyes World’s Biggest Timber Project

(Bloomberg) -- Larry Page’s ‘city of the future’ on Toronto’s waterfront may end up having one foot rooted firmly in the past.

Sidewalk Labs LLC, the urban innovation unit of Alphabet Inc., is considering constructing buildings in the 4.9-hectare (12-acre) high-tech community entirely with tall-timber technology -- engineered wood products that proponents say are as strong and fire-resistant as those made from steel or concrete.

If the proposal goes through, Quayside, which will include about 3,000 residential units, would be the largest development built primarily with tall timber, Karim Khalifa, director of building innovations at Sidewalk Labs, said on Tuesday. Using technology to help solve urban issues is a particular interest of Alphabet co-founder Page, who is using the Toronto project as something of a test case.

“It’s such an audacious concept to build this many buildings with 3 million square feet of timber all at once” that the project would need developer support to make it happen, Khalifa said in an interview with Bloomberg at a project update. Sidewalk Labs has talked to developers including Mattamy Homes Ltd. about collaborating on tall timber, which allows for less carbon intensity than traditional building materials, is more sustainable, faster to erect and cheaper to fund, Khalifa said.

Several Hurdles

Wood has been used in home building throughout history, but tall-timber construction uses materials such as cross-laminated timber -- wood panels make from gluing layers of lumber together -- and has slowly been gaining traction in countries from Austria to Japan. Silicon Valley construction startup Katerra Inc., which is backed by Softbank Group Corp., acquired Vancouver-based Michael Green Architecture Inc. this year, a veteran of tall-timber construction.
Tall timber buildings may also soon pop up in Toronto with “The Arbour,” a 12-story building that’s been proposed for George Brown College on the Eastern Waterfront.

But Sidewalk Labs has to overcome several challenges to make this tall-timber project a reality, including the fact that Toronto’s building code currently allows for only six stories of tall-timber construction. That is expected to be extended to 12 stories by 2021, but Sidewalk Labs has plans for towers of up 50 stories.

The company has already faced many hurdles in Toronto, including intense scrutiny on how it will handle the extensive data it may collect.

The project will take up a chunk of 325 hectares (800 acres) on the Eastern Waterfront, one of the largest undeveloped urban parcels in the continent. Sidewalk Toronto has dedicated $50 million to planning the project and expects to have a clearer outline by January. Dan Doctoroff, the chief executive officer of Sidewalk Labs, was CEO of Bloomberg LP and deputy mayor of New York City under Michael Bloomberg, Bloomberg’s founder.

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