“We have to start managing infrastructure from a starting point of carbon. Carbon is the universal language. Maybe we need to stop looking at chasing points in certain building accreditation programmes, and really starting to focus on what is the carbon impact of this decision?”
In this episode my guest is Patrick Crabbe. Patrick is the Director of Mass Timber at Bird Construction, North America’s first general contractor to dedicate full-time expertise, and a create a national centre of excellence, for sustainable mass timber construction.
I’ve come to know Patrick as one of Canada’s sustainable mass timber industry leaders , with a focus on mass timber’s potential to reduce and sequester carbon dioxide emissions. Patrick is not only hugely knowledgeable, but he is also one of the most passionate and energetic advocates for sustainable mass timber I have met.
Growing up in a wood manufacturing family, and then earning degrees in biology from St. Francis Xavier University, and then an Honours degree in Wood Products Processing from the University of British Columbia, Patrick brings a lifetime of experience and expertise to sustainable mass timber construction.
In his leadership role at Bird Construction, Patrick supports 18 districts across Canada with a focus on providing constructability input during the design and pre-construction and construction phases, as well as educating project teams, clients, and the public. He is an active member of the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition (led by the World Bank) and a trusted advisor to Infrastructure British Columbia and the Canadian Wood Council.
Our conversation ranges from a discussion of Patrick’s passion for wood and mass timber as a powerful tool to meet the challenges of greenhouse gas emissions, and reduce embodied carbon in the construction industry, to the opportunities and challenges for mass timber market acceptance, to the advice he would give listeners, and of course, and to the two books that Patrick Recommends to listeners.
Patrick speaking at the National CSC conference in Halifax in 2016.
Patrick’s passion for mass timber and how it became your career:
Yeah, my passion for wood products and forestry, I didn’t really have a choice to be honest. My diapers were changed in the sawdust pile and sawdust in my veins kind of through my education and so on, but it found me. It found the right person. It was instilled from being involved in a family business, forestry-based. As I was educated through life and worked different jobs, I always try and found ways, looking through the lens of the family business, how it can relate back to business or to the greater things in the world that need to be addressed, climate change in this case. Being a biology buff, speaking to another, learning about photosynthesis and complex carbon chains being stored in trees, so carbon sequestration and the carbon cycle and the lungs that forests across the world provide our world with in producing oxygen and storing CO2.
It made me realize, at a pretty young age, that forests were going to be more valuable to humans than they ever really knew. Then transcending into my professional career in the family business here in Canada, the forest industry is very much dependent on the health of the US economy over 80% of either value added or commodity products are shipped to the US. Whenever there are changes in political powers or external factors beyond our control, economically, it creates a vulnerable space for all forest-based product companies. That’s exactly what happened in 2008, and our family business that was very successful, employed over 400 people in the St. Stephen, New Brunswick area, we were forced to close our doors.
With that door closing and another one opening, I landed on my feet at the Canadian Wood Council managing the Atlantic Wood Works programme where the entire mandate of the Wood Works group is to grow domestic use of forest-based products in Canada. Now, I’m working at things that led to the exact detriment of our family enterprise. Very passionate about it and where I’m at, and that’s exactly how it has been ingrained in my career.
From there into construction. I’m so fortunate to be in the role that I am at Bird Construction. There’s one thing I think a lot of people don’t necessarily see about the construction industry is just how diverse it is, how important it is. Whether you’re in the design side or the execution side, you’re building the infrastructure that our communities, our provinces, that our nation needs to succeed moving forward. It truly is eye-opening.
The most important lessons Patrick learned about how mass timber can be used to deal with climate change and its impacts:
I would say the first lesson is very much a soft observation and the fact that in forestry and forest-based product development or even wood construction, there are certainly opposing views. What this has taught me being informed with the latest science and research commissioned by different associations or the government itself in the industry is that you have to see the other side before you respond, put yourself in their shoes and recognize the fact that this conflict creates an opportunity for a relationship. Through that, whether it be a company perspective or a competing industry or an individual that has either been impacted by, let’s say, a forestry practice, or had a bad experience with a wood building, that approach has really allowed to create more and more of a positive impact, so that those individuals are not going around continuing to either spread the word or so on. It’s important to address these in a very professional manner.
That would be probably one of the more important lessons that I’ve learned and that the next would be relative to how do we increase this awareness? It has to start in our high school systems and our post-secondary institutions. Through high school, we were very much a curriculum based learning. It felt like there were not so many external factors that really would change the conversation in the classroom year over year, where I think that, that’s now more important, so our boards and I guess, all the other forms of governance that manage what is being taught in the classroom today, certainly has to be a bit more nimble. Even, I graduated at the University of British Columbia in the wood products processing programme, which is very much a science-based, engineering based programme and we were not learning about climate change and the impacts of forests and the benefit of our forests in this role, and how that’s balanced between wood product production and sustainable forest management.
That’s really a critical part in this. In my role at the Canadian Wood Council, Craig, we spent years developing education roadmaps to work with Deans at various post-secondary institutions to try and incorporate more wood design curriculum within architectural and engineering studies. There was roadblock after roadblock, and it takes so much time to do this, all while that information that you’re trying to introduce is evolving. That really would be probably the greatest impact that I would see is introduction of wood, climate change, mass timber construction, and so on within our education system.
One of the interesting things is that the response on from a lot of these groups were, “Well, what does the market say?” When we look at our gross domestic product of generation from forest-based product industries, it’s absolutely incredible the contribution that it makes to provinces across Canada and that’s where the market is. The other interesting aspect is that a lot of the communities that support the forest industry are rural and these are the hardest to replace. It has to start with our education.
Patrick’s thoughts on the big benefits of mass timber and its very low embodied carbon footprint:
Embodied energy is the amount of CO2 equivalence or global warming potential that has gone into produce the product that you are using today. From the resource extraction, all the way to transportation, conversion, packaging a back on the truck going to the construction site to end of use, other deconstruction demolition, and what happens after you have that material, is it either combusted or put into a landfill? It’s this very comprehensive life cycle analysis that tells the carbon story of the product you’re going to use. It is probably the blind spot in current design and construction practices, and I think a lot of the blind spot in carbon policy. In fact, Architecture 2030 has defined that embodied energy is now the more dominant portion of the conversation by far for new construction than operational.
Because on the operational side, our grids are getting cleaner, and I have many theories about how quickly that could be accelerated and our grids are getting cleaner, the building programmes like LEED and others have really raised that bar for national energy codes to accelerate their energy efficiency of code minimums. They’re more efficient. Now, we need to start focusing on that piece of the pie over the building life cycle of the impact of the materials you chose to build with. Also, I think the key point here too, Craig, is that carbon sequestration is not factored into this embodied calculation.
Patrick speaks to how to respond to the public concern of fire safety for mass timber:
The way I respond to this and it’s one of my favourite questions is just human experience. When you’re trying to start a fire, which we all have, whether it be at our camp or in our house, there’s a stage to that. The fundamental principle is that wood in its massive form is not nearly as combustible as one may think. You don’t light a fire with a big piece of round wood and a match or a big lighter. It just doesn’t work that way.
The more mass and surface area that you have, the less of a mass combustible event risk there is. Then inherently, it would be in a natural material, it has, which has evolved over millions and millions of years, it produces char. That is part of the life cycle strategy and reproductive strategy of many tree species is that in the event of a forest fire, they’re able to survive over a lot of the other flora and fauna, and then they will release their seeds. And then their offspring have a carbon rich, less competitive environment to flourish in. Charring is the evolutionary principle that really benefits us in the case of construction, because regardless of the species, wood has a very consistent burn rate. It burns at about 0.65 millimetres a minute.
You can really design a fire rating to whatever you would like by just simply following that char calculation, which is verified in a lot of our engineering standards today. It’s something that a lot of people tend to overlook and relative to other materials like steel or concrete, when there are fires happening, there’s a lot of things in our household or in a multi-unit building that can create unpredictable events around temperature and heat. In some cases, steel or concrete, which has a lot of rebar in it, will have these critical buckling points, which can be very dangerous and it could be difficult to get people out within the fire rating that was specified, where wood, it’s very consistent, as I said. it creates more of a predictive index and can potentially be better for life safety.
Patrick’s thoughts on what needs to happen in the market to make mass timber more cost competitive?
Yes, through COVID and supply chain challenges and the geopolitical crisis where we’re going through pricing of commodities and lead times are moving targets all over the country. Sometimes a design and construction solution in Vancouver is completely different from a cost competitive approach to that of Toronto or here in Halifax. I would have to say that it’s important to include individuals in your construction planning and procurement process as early as possible, so that they can provide that market intelligence as you’re doing design decisions or material specification decisions, because lead times are a huge part of that as well, whether it be just a unit cost or not. But in principle, for a mass timber building to be cost competitive, and let’s say more predictive landscape like three years ago, you have to really consider supply chain constraints and the manufacturing capabilities of that supply chain and design to its capabilities.
There are certain mass timber producers that can make a certain CLT panel of a certain size across laminated timber panel. There can be a certain Glulam size that is much better that they can make efficiently for residential or an institutional building. Capturing that kind of design for manufacturing and assembly approach early can make the project much more cost effective. Now, adversely we often get a steel or concrete design, and the last minute they can’t make the numbers work, so they’ll pass it over to us and say, “Patrick, can you make mass timber work?” And it’s just like, “It doesn’t work that way. You have to inherently think about the form and the function of the building in order to make mass timber comparable in price.” Often sometimes it’s more competitive.
Patrick’s thoughts on the best way to use forests as large scale carbon sinks for removing CO2 from the atmosphere:
We’re seeing a lot of different groups managing forests from a carbon perspective, whether it be here in Musquodoboit at Nova Scotia, Craig, with Growing Forests or the SEC group, which I’ve come to learn more about on kind of the west coast of the USA. That is a different approach that not a lot of us were aware of. When we look at the economic sustainability of harvesting some forests, it can be a carbon detriment. But then again, you have to ask yourself, “Well, if we didn’t harvest this forest, what’s the alternative?” It really is a challenging balance there, but I would have to say one of the more progressive models or solutions is what I’ve seen here in my home province, the province of Nova Scotia, where the Lahey Report has identified a triad model of forestry, where you have a balance between protected area, recreational area, and then more of your industrial-based forestry, which would be intensive for harvesting and ultimately those areas would be selected by top soil composition, sun exposure, to try and accelerate growth of more of those high valued species.
That’s a unique approach. It still hasn’t necessarily been adopted and this is really where mass timber comes into play because the trend is that we’re seeing more and more area become protected. In, let’s say, Atlantic Canada, as an example, there is a large proportion of private land compared to public land adversely in a province like BC, it’s predominantly public so they can pull the strings on what resource is going to be available or not. But here in Atlantic, so we’re seeing that trend of less and less green land becoming available. Saw mill companies in forest-based product producers are going to have to have generate more value with less. This is really where mass timber comes in and can really try and help support forest management for carbon and more of a selective harvest.
Patrick’s thoughts on the best way to drive or are the best ways to drive large scale change and large scale action needed to move us in the right direction dealing with climate change in its impacts:
Specific to climate change taking off my mass timber and forestry hat, I would have to say that a carbon tax is probably the best solution. We are running out of time. We have the net zero objective by 2050.
“I would have to say that a carbon tax is probably the best solution. We are running out of time. We have the net zero objective by 2050.”
I’m part of this group called the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, which is led by the World Bank, and they have been investigating the carbon tax, its various levels, and how you do a coordinated execution of this tax from country to country so that it’s fair and you’re not creating that economic egress from one country to another to capitalise on a lower tax rate. But ultimately, there has to be a bit of a consequence for no action, not a bit, a lot and then utilizing that tax revenue in a very transparent way to accelerate green industries, whether that be renewable energy generation and research or lower embodied carbon products or incentivizing net zero, carbon zero infrastructure.
What Patrick thinks are the biggest challenges and barriers to coming to grips with how we meet the realities of climate change and climate impacts and the necessity to not only reduce emissions but also adapt to these huge impacts:
Craig, I’m taking words from your mouth in a previous conversation and just how we have quarterly priorities in industry and we have four year politic life cycles. There’s really this inherent confliction between coordination and long term vision and how we execute that.
“There is so much opportunity for renewable generation or phasing out high carbon energy production that is just not being capitalised on.”
Really, some of the greatest barriers I’ve seen so far, and this is just in a Canadian context is a lot of our public utilities. There is so much opportunity for renewable generation or phasing out high carbon energy production that is just not being capitalised on because it allows them, they lose control and it’s just stifling innovation in so many ways. We all know that money is what makes the world go around. If we could certainly find that balance between ways for industries to participate and yet, still provide the necessary monies to our public utilities to function properly.
How mass timber fits into helping densify cities and as a possible solution to the problem of missing middle:
Looking at this from 10,000 feet, what is interesting about the genesis of a mass timber project is that it requires collaboration. And being involved early in the Sidewalk Labs city that was proposed on Toronto’s waterfront, it was amazing to see the potential for leveraging low-carbon materials, technologies, and communications from building to building, whether that be one building on the south side generating solar energy, and then feeding that to the one on the north side to waste management streams down below well in the foundations and greywater collection. I think that for our cities to be looking at a building as a standalone renewable energy generation is such a foresighted approach to this.
“…regarding mass timber providing the solution for the missing middle, we have so many corridors and Canadian cities that really need to have their potential unlocked.”
And a missed opportunity. We really need to start working collectively on waste energy recollection, sharing energies, and again, another cool part about these smart cities and this is a lot of the conflict is around privacy, but you could have certain forms of transportation, be at your door that know your schedule. If there’s an event of a fire, they know how many people are in those buildings. It’s certainly a polarizing topic in many ways, but that’s what I see mass timber fitting into these bigger cities is teaching people that collaborative approach. I thought the Sidewalk Labs example was a very good one for that and it’s too bad that it didn’t happen here in Canada. But moving on to your next part of the question regarding mass timber providing the solution for the missing middle, we have so many corridors and Canadian cities that really need to have their potential unlocked.
Some mass timber solutions can allow you to build without a development agreement, depending on how large that building is providing fast, rapid, affordable housing solutions. Those middle densities of eight stories and below too, they can provide community living for immigrant families or even Canadians as well. I really see a bright future for the cost challenges of some of those other materials being able to build an affordable manner of that scale for mass timber to come in and make a big difference in contributing to tax base and sustainably developing and unlocking potential of these corridors.
Patrick talks about other opportunities for environmental regeneration, and how we repair the damage we’ve caused, and how mass timber and sustainable forests are a potential solution:
This is where I would say the carbon sequestration factor comes in, what is that offset paradigm?
Through our forest and forestry, when you harvest a tree and convert it into a building product, it will provide you with carbon sequestration throughout the life cycle of that structure. A tonne of carbon today stored is worth probably about a 100 tomorrow so that’s an incredible thing that has to be realized.
A tonne of carbon today stored is worth probably about a 100 tomorrow so that’s an incredible thing that has to be realized.
Now, from a forestry standpoint is when you look at harvesting wood from a specific stand, right, there is amount of carbon that is going to be stored and that stand through, let’s say a 40, 50-year life cycle when it’s ready to be harvested. Then you are to cut it, while you have that offset of those building materials that were produced from it. And that the younger trees that are coming in, they can actually absorb carbon at a much faster rate per land area than that existing forest that was there, depending on how it was managed as well. Younger trees are much like humans. They grow quite fast until they reach a certain stasis and that carbon sequestration can be quite rapid. That’s an interesting principle to understand in how we manage our forest for carbon is through proper forest management to get more fibre per square hectare and to obviously prevent that of insect infestation or manage them to reduce fire risk, if it’s an ageing stand and so on to prevent a mass carbon event, so yeah.
Other ideas that Patrick is seeing and hearing about that are moving the needle on climate change:
One of the things that really needs to be looked at is that we have to start managing infrastructure from a carbon basis. Carbon is the universal language. Maybe we need to stop looking at chasing points and certain building accreditation programmes, and really starting to focus on what is the carbon impact of this decision.
That will simplify our approach moving forward. It will, I think, streamline the supply chain because people that want their product specified in a lower carbon target will have third party certified environmental product declarations that show that nutritional label of CO2 equivalents or global warming potential. That’s the blind spot. It really starts to need to be incentivized and understood because so many of our building accreditation systems today talk about energy and not carbon.
I guess, one of the concepts I think really needs to be explored is how can industry fit within the framework to the path to net zero? One of the best examples is if let’s say, a Bird Construction were to build a bricks and mortar warehouse for an individual that they just wanted concrete block and a steel roof, and Bird could say, “Well, no, we’ll build you a zero carbon, net zero structure, if we can have your carbon credits and we’ll make that investment, and we’ll charge you the same rate as your conventional design.” I think that, that level of participation with industry in monetizing smarter carbon decisions and contributing towards jurisdictional net zero goals would accelerate the carbon economy more than we could ever imagine and expedite the timeline to achieve our net zero goals.
What Patrick thinks is missing from the discussion of climate change? Are there any other questions or better questions we should be asking:
What is missing is the consultation with various levels of industry on what is the framework for governments moving forward? Participating on one of my Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition events, I heard a climate leader, Jos Delbeke, and he’s an EIB Climate Chair at the school of transitional governments and he said that, even today, we have, let’s say, Air Canada publishing a ticket that says you can buy a carbon offset, right? But where does that go? What happens with that? Industry is showing how they can help empower consumers, but we don’t know whether that is actually going to where it’s supposed to go, and what needs to be made clear from a Canadian context is our government going to form what’s called a compliance framework for carbon or a regulatory framework? The compliance framework is much like what the city of Toronto and city of Vancouver are doing, where they’re capping their emissions.
If you exceed that cap, who pays? We don’t know, but that’s kind of it, you set the benchmark, you have to achieve it. Then the other is the regulated approach where you have a voluntary carbon market and this is where cap and trade comes into play and the government can decide the inclusions and exclusions and what large emitters are actually playing ball and incentivize green growth from that perspective. That’s what’s missing, Craig, we don’t know. We don’t know what are the right things that we can do. We are seeing so many areas of industries and sectors making strides, but still, we don’t know how that aligns with our net zero objective. I just think some more coordination and consultation between government and big industry would be absolutely critical.
Patrick’s thoughts on the idea of progress whether we can make a positive difference in the world:
I have so much hope. I am just continually baffled at the rate of innovation and sophistication of industries and companies. When we look at this from, let’s say, environmental perspective, I really do feel that we can create free energy. There is so much power out there that can be harnessed with a lot of the technologies that we have today. I was reading that Japan has spent three and a half years with a wave and current turbine system that can produce a gigawatt of power. It’s just truly unbelievable, but we have to enable these things and there’s certainly no money and free energy. That certainly may not be attractive to the quarterly profit framework of businesses and the political term.
“I really do feel that we can create free energy. There is so much power out there that can be harnessed with a lot of the technologies that we have today.”
But I really do have so much hope and I feel now too, we’re in a new era. We are in a new era where somewhat people of our nations are pushing back and asking for questions and are really becoming aware of things like inflation and what will need to change. This is in this whole age of recruitment and retention for businesses and sectors. There’s so much opportunity to capitalise on this and to pay people fairly and have really good benefits to your job, whether it be flexible or daycare or so on. There’s so much opportunity out there in the time of this adversity. It really does give me a lot of hope.
What Patrick offered listeners about what they can do to make a difference:
I would say it’s very important in this age of information to have an informed future. When you’re sifting through your social media feeds that you are making decisions that go along with your personality and your influence moving forward, you’re just doing a bit of research and fact checking behind what it is that you are aligning with to make sure that it is correct and that you’re setting yourself up for a proper mental health direction and a professional direction moving forward.
If Patrick had the power to implement one change, one innovation or one policy that would have the effect of significantly reducing CO2 emissions or helping adapt to climate change, what it would be and why:
It would be establishing a green innovation fund that would be fed by carbon tax implementation. For what decisions make sense in a certain area, like perhaps a competitive pool of whether is this for farming? Is this for ocean restoration? Is this for forestry or forest product innovation? Is it for renewable energy generation of phasing out high carbon emitters but have certainly a transparent competitive process that again can accelerate that change? This is a bit of an aside, Craig, but one thing I think is incredibly important is a lot of the government funding programmes that exist in our country today, they really focus just on innovation.
Innovation is very broadly defined, but often the way that it is defined is doing something that no one else has done before and that can take a lot of time to adapt to a marketplace to have an impact. What I would say is that even with the idea of this fund, or the restructuring of government programmes to capitalise on this tight timeframe that we have, we need to start looking at market acceptance. We need to look at things that just require a little bit of a support or a tweak that can have rapid market acceptance immediately. That’s not innovating something new, it can be improving something that already exists.
If Patrick could publish a full page spread in the Sunday New York Times or The Globe and Mail, of anything you wanted written or graphic, what would it be?
As a person, I would just love to see the simple message of do the right thing, putting my mass timber hat back on and truly advertising for something I feel aligned with, that suits this 21st century imperative, it would be mass timber is the future.
Patrick’s Book Recommendations:
- Tree: A Life Story by David Suzuki and beautiful illustrations by Robert Bateman.
One of the first books that I read for a second time was Tree, and it is about the life of one Douglas-fir in the boreal forest and trees don’t move. It talked about it from its own observation of just how intricate and delicate ecosystems are and how connected everything is, the roles of the smallest things to weather patterns and seasons. That is I think a great one for someone in this space to learn and read, especially in the forest sector where it shows that you have empathy for sometimes the loss of life of trees as you’re converting them into low carbon building products. Yeah. That was a really impactful story for me.
- The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by Robert Iger.
The current book, which I’m really taking my time with, that I’ve recommended to a lot of people is a Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger, and he’s the President and CEO of Walt Disney. I feel that what aligns very well with me in this book is that humans tend to overestimate accomplishments in the short term and underestimate what they can do in the long term. He took a vision of expanding Walt Disney into Asia, a completely different part of the world and very much a North American model here and seeing how all that would replicate. It took him 15 years and he succeeded and the amount of challenge and adversity that was faced along that way, even minutes leading up to the ribbon cutting of that new resort, it truly is an inspiration about how to maintain focus, positivity, and demonstrate true leadership.
How You Can Connect With Patrick
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/patrick-crabbe-1b270a136/
- Website: https://www.bird.ca/
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