By Mike Yorke, President, Carpenters Union District Council Ontario
In May, Alphabet announced that it would be canceling its high-profile Sidewalk Labs project due to “unprecedented economic uncertainty.” It marked the ending of a three-year-long initiative to create a living, urban “testbed for emerging technologies, materials, and processes.”
Reversing the traditional order of city planning, Sidewalk Labs imagined building a new urban district on Toronto’s waterfront from the internet up, with sensors and other forms of data collection embedded in the fabric of a large city block. The ambitious development—with an area of 2.65 million square feet, including1.78 million square feet of residential space—was to be built entirely from mass timber; indeed, the extensive use of modular cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glue-laminated timber (glulam) was a chief selling point of the design (by Heatherwick Studio and Snøhetta).
But the project’s cancelation changes little in regard to mass timber’s future. Indeed, the true legacy of Sidewalk Labs Toronto lies not in its smart-city applications for human interaction, monitoring, and algorithmic anticipation, but with that much older human construct—wood. Mass timber represents a massive step forward in design, carbon-capture goals, and green efficiencies. CLT is as strong as steel and offers the same fire retardation properties—or better—than steel construction. It also allows for faster builds (35 percent on timelines) that don’t tie-up city streets with cement mixers.
From an aesthetic perspective, Sidewalk Labs was a test case for what’s possible using this innovative material. In the architectural renderings, burnished, almost glowing CLT beams are manipulated into every possible configuration, demonstrating mass timber’s range of applications, from skyscrapers, mixed-use developments, and higher-education construction. It glimpsed an alternative to the all-over concrete that characterizes our contemporary cities, showing communities at work and play against a brackdrop of a greener, more open urban canopy of natural wood and transparent glass.
And lest it be forgotten, the project spoke as broadly to the neighborhood it served as it did to its mass timber principles. Among the its stated “community benefits” were employment priority opportunities for youth, women in construction, new Canadians, as well as the retraining of military veterans. Beyond its own Toronto waterfront environs, Sidewalk Labs had planned to invest in a mass timber factory that would have employed Indigenous communities in northern Ontario.
We will never know if the promised aim of community integration, social responsibility, and 2500 new jobs would have materialized exactly as imagined. But all these ideas can be picked up by other developers in Toronto and elsewhere. The legacy of concept is still there. And so is the notion of creating a mass timber manufacturing sector from scratch in Ontario.
Sidewalk Labs could have been an urban fountainhead of Canadian building culture and mass timber. Already, it punched above its weight in terms of ambition and connectedness; despite what has been said on the internet, the project as a whole was listening to and observing the world around it—what it could change for the better and where it could adapt to needs.
Those principles, the high-concept intellectual legacy of Sidewalk Labs along with the advent of mass timber construction, have been bequeathed to the carpenters of Ontario and our other city builders here. It has not gone away. It is just getting started.
Rendering of Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto, displaying extensive use of Mass Timber.
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