Tall Wood: Good looks but a lot of drywall

The architecture firm behind the Tall Wood Building is one whose name might not be instantly recognizable to most campus residents, but Acton Ostry’s presence is one which is nonetheless influential in shaping the environments of UBC’s future.

From the new Aquatics Centre to Sauder’s extension and the seismic renewal of the Biological Sciences Complex – to name a few – Tall Wood is just the next of an impressive roster of campus projects to their credit. An examination of their work shows a firm whose style resides squarely within a more conservative aesthetic. Russel Acton – one of the founding members of the firm – describes his organization’s style different.

“We’re a real problem solving practice that is not about the image, it’s substance. […] we just don’t do stuff for image and visuals it’s equal consideration for technical aspects, functional aspects, operation and maintenance aspects […].” He says they “try to work in an architectural expression that’s a bit more timeless instead of flashy.”

This approach is certainly evident in Tall Wood, which retains a very simple, consistent appearance that allows the wooden motif of its form to become the most noticeably beautiful part about it. In comparison to the Walter Gage residences looming next to it, Brock Commons becomes a perfect illustration of old ideas and new ones, as well as elegant simplicity versus the crude, austerity of Gage.

On the inside, even with only the studs and crated up shower stalls to indicate what is in store for the interior, there can be no doubt that residents are in for one hell of a view. They could furnish the rooms with utter rubbish and it would still almost be worth the rent, just to be able to wake up and look out the beautiful, massive windows that they’ve installed. 

The rooms themselves seem like they will have adequate space, and Acton made it clear that no amenities were skimped on when planning the rooms. The only big issue was best voiced by the head of UBC’s Civil Engineering Department, Perry Adebar, who said, “The really sad part of that building is that all the beautiful timber has been covered by layers of drywall.”

When The Ubyssey toured the building all but the seventeenth floor had been coated in concrete and drywall, making the inside feel much like any other building, and a bit sad. The decision to cover everything seemed all the more tragic when we reached the uncovered floor, saw the exposed wood and smelled it. 

The eighteenth floor will still leave the wood uncovered, but otherwise it is a bit of a disappointment which makes the experience of “living in a wood building” seem like a bit of a misnomer. 

Acton explained that there were several reasons for making this decision, the first being that in a student residence graffiti is an inevitability and removing carved letters from drywall is much easier than removing it from exposed wood. 

The second reason has more to do with building codes and regulations. Acton explained that though the building codes allow for new solutions to challenges, the process of actually approving those can be dauntingly challenging when exploring new territories like wood construction. 

“In terms of, some human emotion that comes into approvals of projects, when they’re the first of their kind in a particular place, […] it’s the first one in BC for a tall building let alone with students living in it," said Acton. "When we’re coming up with a strategy and discussing a strategy with the authorities approval,[…] they just feel better, like we can show them the science on the exposed wood option, or we can just say 'hey we’ll just cover it up with drywall,' you know like we do for steel, it’s very very familiar with them.”

The decision is undoubtedly justifiable, however it still comes across as somewhat contradictory to the otherwise innovative image of the building which is being presented.

This is one issue though, and in almost every other way this is an impressive structure whose presence on UBC marks a welcome addition, one which shows a willingness to innovate and experiment in ways previously not seen on campus.