Architects created an indoor forest before digital fabrication came of age
“We decided to create an environment that appeared to be alive and growing,” says Farrow, a senior partner at Farrow Partnership Architects. He made a few sketches and foamcore models for the 11,500-square-foot space before creating a triangular floor plan centered on four sprawling columns comprising Douglas fir glulam (glue-laminated) members.
The massive engineered timbers curve 44 feet 6 inches up to the beams that support the atrium roof. Like trees, the structural columns sprout almost seamlessly into glulam branches that further support the roof frame.
Designed in 2003, the project precedes today’s advanced 3D modeling software and fabrication technologies. Early in the design process, Farrow and his team began a steady dialogue with manufacturing and installation partner Timber Systems Limited, based in Markham, Ontario, to detail the complex geometry. Timber Systems modeled and mapped hundreds of joints using Dietrich’s 3D-CAD/CAM software for wood construction.
Credit: Timber Systems
The original drawings called for external steel connectors. But Timber Systems president Gary Williams felt that the metal would disrupt the aesthetic—“Trees,” he notes, “don’t have sideplates”—so the Timber Systems team spent hours devising a system of concealed connectors.
Farrow says the cancer center had the most intricate wood structure in North America when it opened in 2004. Ten years later, Williams says there has been no need for any maintenance or refinishing of glulam components. This May, Farrow dropped by to judge for himself. “It looks as good as it did when it opened,” the architect says. “Maybe even better, thanks to the patina it has picked up.” Even now, Farrow still hears from patients and their families, who call the space “uplifting” and “natural.”
A Geoffrey James photograph of a tree in Prospect Park, in New York, served as Farrow’s early design inspiration. “Trees symbolize strength and comfort,” Farrow says. Because the unconventional design looked astronomically expensive, the project’s funder, the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, required a cost analysis during the final design phase. Farrow’s concept proved less expensive than standard steel construction, prompting one hospital board member to call the design “beauty on a budget.”
The glulam timbers total more than 25,000 cubic feet of Douglas fir, the equivalent of 60,000 residential studs. Six different jig settings were used to construct the glulam arches.
Note: This article has been updated since first publication to clarify the full name of Timber Systems Limited and its location in Markham, Ontario.