A revolution in construction has begun and Element5 –
you could call it Patrick Chouinard‘s baby – is right in the thick of that revolution and helping to change the way buildings are constructed for the better.
Concrete and steel have built our cities for the last 150 years, but there is a problem. They are one of the leading causes of the global CO2 crisis. And as the world’s population continues to grow - it’s estimated to reach nine billion in just a few decades - and with global warming widely considered our greatest threat, we need sustainable alternatives.
And one of the best options, according to those who drive the revolution, Element5 among them, is the use of timber as the essential building material of the 21st century.
The environmental benefits of building with wood are well documented. Of the three principal building materials used today, wood is the only one that is renewable. From an ecological standpoint, wood is also the only material that can provide a net carbon benefit, helping mitigate climate change by providing long-term storage for atmospheric carbon. In a word, wood is the ‘sustainable’ choice.Born and raised in Toronto
Chouinard was born and raised in Toronto, earned a business degree at Ryerson and went to work for Oracle Corporation, first in Toronto, then Singapore and then Hong Kong only to quit his big corporate gig to open art galleries and all of it before he ever even thought about getting into the mass timber game.
But let’s start at the beginning, because this is a fascinating story.
“So I was working for Oracle Corporation in Toronto, and after a few months they approached me and asked if I was interested to continue that exact same job, but in Singapore,” Chouinard says. “And I accepted.
“I was their alliance manager, I managed their strategic relationships with their hardware partners such as IBM and I also managed their consulting relationships with such companies as Pricewaterhouse, Coopers and Deloitte Consulting for example.”
Chouinard says that was a regional job and he travelled a lot managing those relationships.
He spent about six years working for Oracle in Singapore and then transferred to their Hong Kong offices where he spent another three years.
But eventually he got tired of the corporate world and wanted to do something different.
“During my travels, I was making good money and I always had an interest in art, and when I was staying in all these different places in Asia, I always made a point of visiting galleries and I became a collector of contemporary Asian art,” Chouinard says. “And so after all of those years in the corporate world I wanted to do something completely different so
I opened an art gallery.”
It began with one contemporary art gallery in Hong Kong
and later he also opened a sister
gallery in Chicago.
“I did that for three years, had
a blast and realized there is no
money in art,” he says with a chuckle.
“I married and had kids and I figured I am not going to be able to support my family this way. So as much fun as I had, I figured I had to get realistic about it. I sold the company and we decided to return to Canada. That was 2003 and I had to reinvent myself completely.”
Chouinard says he’d had enough of big cities and they decided to move to, of all places, Bracebridge, a small town in Ontario’s Muskoka Region about two hours north of Toronto.
“We had a family cottage there and I had previously purchased a condominium for my parents there as well. And then my dad passed away and we decided Bracebridge would be a good place to start over,” Chouinard says.
“Plus we already owned that condo so we could live for free and I’ll figure out what I am going to do next.”
His father had been in construction and Chouinard had learned a lot from him. With this experience he felt confident enough to own a construction ccompany.
“It was a bit of a transition to be sure, going from Hong Kong and selling contemporary Asian art to the upper echelons of society, to start working in Bracebridge and cleaning out somebody’s septic tank,” Chouinard says, but that didn’t stop him.
“I ran that company for about three or four years and I hired good people who knew what they were doing and I learned how to build things and what it took to complete successful projects.
“And then, rather than work for people, I would buy my own pieces of land and built my own houses and then I sold them.”
Sounds good, but it was still a bit of a struggle and Chouinard ended up with five houses on the market when the recession hit and had to carry those houses for the better part of eight months before he could get rid of them.
“I learned the hard way and I also figured there had to be an easier way to make a living.”
So next he got a job as a sales rep for a company manufacturing and selling log homes in Muskoka. He did that for three years and discovered that they had a “fantastic business model.”
“They were a manufacturer and all they did was turn the logs they bought into the building material for log homes. They would sell what they called a complete, weathertight shell package. So even though they only milled the logs, they would sell the roof trusses, the soffit, the facia, the shingles, the windows and the doors. A complete kit package for log homes and I thought that is a great concept, but it is limited because log homes only appeal to a niche market and you could only ever sell them in rural environments.
“But then I discovered CLT in Europe and then the lights went on and I thought hang on a minute, we could be taking this log-home business model and we could use CLT and we could be doing the same thing for commercial buildings in urban centres,” Chouinard says
“That was 10 years ago and where I am today is the evolution of that idea.”
Chouinard then got a job for a major CLT manufacturer and spent the next two years learning about the mass timber manufacturing industry from a manufacturers perspective. Next it was on to join another company that didn’t manufacture any products, but worked as a service provider for design, engineering and architectural work. So they would buy in the components and then assembled everything for the clients.
“We did some pretty notable projects, including the Art Gallery of Ontario and TD Place in Ottawa.”
Having worked both sides of the industry, Chouinard says he recognized the opportunity to combine both. In other words, if you can manufacture product and then also provide the design services you can offer the complete package.
“So I started the company – Element5 – late in 2015. I also took on two new partners after about six months who had deeper pockets than I did, to help fund the company’s growth and by June of 2017, within a year and a half, we had our first manufacturing plant in Ripon, about an hour east of Ottawa.” Chouinard says they were able to buy the assets of a bankrupt company and took over the lease on their building. “We now had a vacuum press to make CLT, which meant we were able to start the business immediately and by the end of that year we were the third largest CLT manufacturer in the country.
“Of course we paled in comparison to the top two, but it was a start.”
And Chouinard says they had to move quickly and aggressively because they wanted to get their foot into the industry and win and deliver some projects and build a reputation.
And they did just that and over the next few years completed about 40 projects.
“However, I’ve always had my sights set on a bigger manufacturing plant in southern Ontario because there are a lot of business opportunities here and the growth of the mass timber industry is really taking off in Ontario,” he says. “The province represents more than 25 per cent of the country’s construction market so if we wanted to be a part of that and be serious about this business that’s where we needed to have another plant.”Laying the groundwork
Chouinard says they put together a business plan. He also connected with individuals that could help him realize that vision.
One was someone who has been in the lumber industry for many, many years, owned a number of sawmills in Northern Ontario and was interested in the CLT market. Chouinard convinced him to invest in the company and now they “control their supply chain right from the forest floor all the way to the finished materials. And since wood represents about 60 per cent of our cost, it is very important that you control that supply chain,” he says.
“Then I was introduced to another company, one of the largest venture capital firms in the country and we collectively convinced them to invest in Element5 and they are now our largest shareholder.
“So now we had the deeper pockets we required to fund our new, 137,000 sq. ft. plant in St. Thomas, Ontario.”
That plant has been fully operational since April 1, and is currently the most-fully-automated mass timber plant in the world.
“It is not the biggest by any means, but it is the most fully automated and we are supplying materials for projects in Ontario, Quebec, the United States and elsewhere.”
Chouinard says now, owners, developers and architects approach them with a project and Element5 supplies material for them. And since there are still very few architects and engineers who know how to design mass timber buildings, what happens is that owners and architects interested in mass timber approach Element5 as the manufacturers for input.
He says it is important in mass timber construction that the manufacturer is involved early in order to determine what kind and size of parts will be needed for a particular project.
“In order for us to manufacture the right product for them, we often hand hold those projects from the design stage all the way through to assembly of the structure,” says Chouinard. “And in so doing, we provide cost-consulting services first and foremost, because the first question is always: How much does it cost? We also provide design-consulting services through our own, in-house architectural staff. We are not trying to compete with the architects, we’re there just to assist them design mass timber buildings. So we provide consulting services and engineering services to help.
We also do all the 3D modeling and shop drawing and the manufacturing of component parts and typically we also take the contract for the install as well. Thrilled to be here
We asked Chouinard if he is pleased with what he has achieved and he says he is “thrilled because the mass timber industry is really taking off and I am working with a great group of people.”
From his partners to the employees, he says he couldn’t be happier.
The mass timber industry, which got its start in Canada in B.C. about 10 years ago, is completely taking off, he says, and there now is this huge wave in the use of this material right across the country and well into the United States. And here in Ontario alone, there are at least 25 large mass timber buildings in various stages of design and construction and Element5 is the only manufacturer of these products in the province.
“And because of where we are situated in Southern Ontario, we are seeing a huge trend in mass timber construction in Ontario, the central United States and the Eastern Seaboard and we are perfectly situated to capitalize on that. We believe that Ontario will be the centre of that industry for at least the eastern half of North America.
“We couldn’t be any better positioned to capitalize on that growth, it’s very exciting.”
As far as industry competitors are concerned, Chouinard says he takes a different philosophical approach.
“I consider anyone else in the mass timber industry as our brothers in arms if you will. We are all trying to develop this industry and I’d rather consider us partners than competitors. “Of course we all compete on projects, but we also have the potential to work together to grow this industry. We have bought from other companies and they have bought from us, we are really all in this together. I think of it as more of a collaborative approach.”
So for example, he says Element5 is not really doing curved glulam at the moment. But if they come across something like that, they would partner with other manufacturers to supply those materials.
“We would still offer all of our services around that, but we may buy those materials from another supplier.”
The majority of material Element5 processes are produced from 2x6 SPF lumber, but it’s not something they can use as it comes from the mill.
“The lumber industry in North America is geared to a certain kind of product and use. The material we use has to be in a format that is conducive to CLT manufacturing,” he says.
“For example, the 2x6s manufactured for the industry have a moisture content of 18 per cent. For our purposes however, the moisture content needs to be down to 12 per cent.
And the other thing is, because we can make panels that are 52 feet in length and you can’t buy 2x6s in those lengths, they need to be finger jointed. Then, in addition, there is some variation in thickness, but in order to make CLT you are gluing them all together, they need to be the exact same thickness. So we need planers in order to plane them down to the exact thickness.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t a sawmill in the country to provide us with those materials in the perfect format to make CLT, so instead we had to buy all of that equipment in order to convert it into something we can use to make our products.
“So we had to buy a kiln to dry our material from 18 per cent moisture content down to 12 per cent and then we had to buy our own finger jointing equipment to get the lengths we need and our own planers to plane it down to the uniform thickness we require.”
Despite being in Canada and having access to all those raw materials, Chouinard says they had to invest several millions of dollars in equipment just to able to convert it to the right format to use in CLT production.
“When the wood comes in, the first thing that happens is it all gets sorted and stacked. We put spacers between all the 2x6s and we go through our quality control process to make sure the lumber conforms to the industry standard for CLT manufacturing. And then we stick it into the kiln to get it down to the right moisture content.
“Next, it goes into one end of the factory - everything is computer controlled and high-tech automated equipment - and it comes out as a CLT panels at the other end with virtually no manual input. We essentially make billets that then go to our CNC equipment for sizing and cutting windows and doors.”
Chouinard says at that point, it’s basically like IKEA furniture and with the revolution in off-site manufacturing, buildings are now made like IKEA furniture and every piece is cut to size and shaped and numbered. Every panel or column or beam has a unique location where it fits within the structure. And then their construction crews, which really are more like their assembly crews, are putting the building together on site rather than constructing it in a traditional sense.”
The main products Element5 manufactures right now are CLT panels, Glulam columns and beams as well as something they call CLIPs, cross-laminated insulated panels. These are envelope panels for the outside of the building and there is an interior CLT layer and they add a vapour barrier the insulation and strapping in the shop. Then the cladding and windows and doors get site-applied. However, Chouinard says as that product matures they will be able to add all of that in their plant, so that there is even less work required on site.
“We do make a few other complimentary engineered wood products as well. For example BOXX panels, a hollow-core CLT panels. It’s like a CLT panel, but it is hollow and actually stronger than CLT and allows us to span greater distances between support structures.
He explains that “if you want to span greater distances between support columns, you have to increase the thickness of the CLT panel and then you get these massive, thick panels and at that point it is no longer cost competitive against concrete or steel so what we’ve done is we’ve created these BOXX panels, which allow us to span great distances. And because these panels are hollow there is much less wood fibre involved so it is cheaper.
As to the life expectancy of mass timber buildings, Chouinard says none of the wood is exposed to the elements on the building exterior; it’s completely encapsulated like with any other building. And since wood will only deteriorate if it is exposed to moisture for example, these buildings have a life expectancy of 100 to 150 years, or more.
“It’s like the many old ‘brick and beam’ buildings in Toronto that are as sound now as the day they were built in the 1850s to 1920s. Toronto has a history of heavy timber construction, there are about 150 of those buildings that are still standing and some of them are now 170 years old.
“So, as evidenced by the many old timber buildings that already exist in this city, there is no question of longevity.”
The other thing that is nice about that is that because it is wood, “you can actually disassemble them and use the components in other buildings because wood does not lose its structural integrity.”
Another advantage of mass timber and mass timber construction is that it offers something for everyone: For the owner, for the developers and for the people using it or living in it.
It’s cheaper and faster to build with. As a general rule it offers between five to eight per cent in cost savings and 20 to 25 per cent speed of construction savings as well.
It’s cheaper and faster and “people are also generally willing to pay a premium to be in these beautiful buildings.
“So you can build them for less but sell them for more.
“To give you an example, we just completed an affordable housing project, a four-storey, 41-unit,
27,000 sq. ft multi-use residential building for the YWCA in Kitchener and we had the timber structure up in 20 days,” says Chouinard. “That’s the floors, dividing walls, elevator shafts, stairwells and we even
used CLT panels for the building envelope and everything went up in 20 days. So when we say 20 to 25 per cent savings that is a very conservative estimate.”
He adds that as everything is
moving towards off-site manufacturing right now and buildings are being assembled rather than constructed, it’s another area where mass timber construction offers big advantages over traditional methods.
The natural beauty of wood
And then there is the whole environmental aspect to consider.
Mass timber materials are natural, renewable and sustainably harvested, which makes it the only material that is completely renewable - and then let’s not forget carbon sequestration.
“Mass timber is one of the few real solutions that can help us with these environmental issues and as a result there is a huge push towards this form of construction,” Chouinard says. “Also, as humans, we are naturally connected to nature and so with the expected population growth, if we continue to build in concrete and steel, we’re becoming further removed from our natural environment so this is kind of like moving the mountain to Muhammad.
“If we can’t live surrounded by nature we can bring it into our living, working and educational environments to feel more connected to nature. There is a lot of research that indicates there are health benefits associated with living and working in environments where we are exposed to natural elements. So it’s healthier, they’re healthier building.”
Right now in Ontario, the building code allows six storeys, anything beyond that needs to go through alternative solutions. However, Ontario will soon adopt the National Building Code, which will allow mass timber construction to go to 12 storeys.
Element5 also joined the Wood Manufacturing Cluster of Ontario, “because they are a valuable organization, provide a voice for numerous small businesses, useful services and information for the collective, and because several of the members can provide products and services which complement the mass timber industry. I highly recommend others join the collective.”
Chouinard says he saw the opportunity in mass timber construction and orchestrated the resources necessary to capitalize on that opportunity.
“But now that our company has become quite large, it takes serious professional management to be able to manage this thing properly, so we brought in a president and CEO who has taken small companies like ours and helped turn them into larger corporations.
“I am the founder and still an owner and part of the management team, but for me personally, now that I’ve got people running the company, I am able to focus the majority of my time on using our facility to make a positive contribution,” he says.
And one of those efforts has seen him develop and promote Element5’s affordable housing solutions, the other is work they have, and continue to do, with Indigenous communities.
“About a year ago we said we want to be part of the solution to the affordable housing crisis. As you are probably well aware, every major city in North America is struggling with affordable housing at the moment and so what we did is we put together a consortium of like-minded individuals to design a mass-timber affordable housing solution.”
And when they came across a tender for the YWCA in Kitchener they put in a bid.
“Honestly, we weren’t sure where our numbers would come in, but we came in as the low bidder and undercut several affordable housing providers in the province and won the project,” says Chouinard.
“The condition was that we
have people in the building within
12 months, which was a huge
task because there were no drawings yet or anything. We got this project
in May and we are on schedule
to have people in the building by mid-February.
“And as a result, we have also now productized this offering and we are putting it out to the market, redefining affordable housing in the province of Ontario and beyond in a modular format so that we can build these buildings out of natural, renewable and sustainably-harvested materials affordably. That means there is now a more affordable option, governments will pay less and we are creating these wonderful healthy environments. Sustainable & Affordable Housing by Element5
Prefabricated, panelized building solutions to address the urgent housing needs of vulnerable Canadians. Their sustainable affordable housing solution offers multi-unit residential, pre-engineered mass timber structures designed and optimized to be: •Affordable • Rapid • Durable and Secure • HealthyAffordable
The optimized CLT design incorporates manufacturing efficiencies that help drive down cost. Furthermore, the use of prefabricated mass timber components helps reduce the construction schedule, which can generate significant cost savings over a strictly site-built project.Rapid
Site-built projects can be subject to weather delays, coordination issues, skilled local labour shortages, and other disruptions. In factory-built projects, timelines are compressed, with site preparation and fabrication often happening concurrently. Components are shipped in sequence for quick assembly.Durable & Secure
Mass timber residential buildings are pre-engineered to meet or exceed building code, fire code, acoustic, and envelope performance requirements. This efficient, safe, and durable construction method delivers buildings that enhance occupant comfort and provide long-term value for building owners.Healthy
People naturally respond to a warm, welcoming wood building. New research in the field of building science shows that this response is more than just a feeling. Incorporating wood and other natural elements into our buildings can directly contribute to the health and well-being of building occupants.