Cracks in the sidewalk How will experimental citybuilding techniques fare in the

Architect Russell Acton can’t believe what he sees when he looks at plans for Sidewalk Labs LLC’s smart city development in Toronto.He hasn’t dug through all the details of the 1,500-page master innovation and development plan (MIDP) released this week by Alphabet Inc.’s New York-based urban development company, but he’s certainly seen the artists’ concept drawings depicting beautiful soaring wood buildings, glowing warmly with exposed timber on the façades, just part of a sweeping vision for around 200 acres of the city’s eastern waterfront.“From a tall wood building perspective, what I see communicated, the design imagery is just naive, it’s illogical and it’s just plain silly,” Acton said. “At the end of the day, if we’re going to talk about tall wood, what I see depicted is unbuildable. It’s expensive. It just shows a lack of understanding of how to build in wood.”Acton should know. His firm, Acton Ostry Architects Inc., designed Brock Commons, an 18-storey residence at the University of British Columbia that held the title as the tallest wood building in the world until it was overtaken by a Norwegian building earlier this year. Five smart city technologies that Sidewalk Labs is pitching Waterfront Toronto chairman has doubts about Sidewalk Labs’ ambitions Five potential sticking points in Sidewalk Labs’ masterplan for the Toronto waterfront Order of Canada architect, Silicon Valley investor call for rethink of Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto waterfront project “The way I kind of see this whole Sidewalk Labs thing is that they’re holding out all of these shiny baubles and these smoke-and-mirrors distractions, and promising everything to further their own agenda,” he said. “I guess they’re trying to generate excitement and sensationalism, but at the cost of just not being truthful.”Mass timber is a trendy building material right now: both the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Toronto are preparing to construct wood buildings; retailer Mountain Equipment Co-Op built its headquarters using mass timber; and tech giant Microsoft Corp. is talking about using the material for a Silicon Valley campus.Sidewalk Labs’ proposed use of mass timber is also like many of the ideas in its master plan in the sense that emerging innovations in urbanism are being applied on a much grander scale than has been tried before, and then, complicating matters, layered on top of each other.As a result, experts are skeptical about how all the experimental city-building techniques will fare in the real world, and they wonder what the consequences will be if one or more of the new technologies doesn’t work as intended.Sidewalk Labs chief executive Dan Doctoroff doesn’t shy away from the idea that the company is pulling together tantalizing ideas such as dynamic streetscapes, tall wood building, and robot tunnels for freight and garbage. Taken together, he said, these emerging technologies and new ways of thinking can dramatically improve life in cities.Sidewalk Labs’ CEO Dan Doctoroff: these emerging technologies and new ways of thinking can dramatically improve life in cities. Data would be anonymized and made available equally to many players, so Sidewalk Labs wouldn’t enjoy any special benefit.On this front, too, Sidewalk Labs may be proposing a grand idea that might not work, said Anthony Townsend, the American author of Smart Cities: Big Data, Urban Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia, and founder of Bits and Atoms LLC, a smart city consulting firm in New York.“You’re actually potentially putting (the data) in a weaker organization that’s just getting started, that isn’t clear about its mission, its goals or its long-term financial survival, and you’re giving it all this really dangerous stuff,” he said. “While it looks good on paper to create an institution … they have no idea how it’s actually going to work in practice.”Data issues were also a source of suspicion for David Wachsmuth, Canada Research Chair in Urban Governance at McGill University in Montreal. He said even if the plan appears to satisfy everyone’s concerns on privacy and data control today, it’ll be important to watch how those concerns change over time.“There’s every chance that this thing gets built and 15 years later, or five years later, there’s just a slow creep of some of the data analytics stuff that was clearly motivating the project from the beginning. I just don’t think that the promises of scaling that back and putting that in a third-party trust are fundamentally reliable,” Wachsmuth said.“When there’s public pushback, which is exactly what we’ve seen in Toronto, that has led to a whole bunch of promises about the data governance side of things that are trying to put minds at ease. To me, the strength of those promises relies crucially on how effective the oversight will be from the city, and I have, frankly, not a ton of confidence there.”Mass timber is a difficult material to work with; workers need to be quick and precise to avoid moisture because damp wood expands. There aren’t enough builders with experience using mass timber to build on the scale Sidewalk Labs is talking about, says the consultant architect on the Brock Commons project at UBC, pictured. Brudder / natuarallywood.com / University of British Columbia “Our goal is to do something remarkable here,” he said in an interview Monday after the master plan was released. “The reason our entire team is doing this is because we believe we’re at a unique moment in time where we actually can address these seemingly intractable urban problems of affordability and inclusive economic opportunity and mobility.”This grand idea makes the project a fascinating case study for people such as Alexandra Lange, a New York-based architecture critic for the real estate blog Curbed. She has been closely following the project.“They’re definitely cribbing from other people. The interesting thing is that they’re cribbing from everyone,” she said. “And I don’t think there is another place that has incorporated all of these innovative ideas, so if it were to be built as they have described it … that would be really fascinating.”But Lange said she worries about how all these experimental building techniques will actually work, who will pay to maintain them and how they’ll be dealt with if they don’t work.Multiple experts in urbanism across North America who spoke to the Financial Post all essentially said the same thing: They’re curious to see how the Sidewalk Toronto project plays out, but they’d be fighting the idea if it were happening in their backyard, because it gives too much control of city life to a private company, or because most people don’t want to live inside an expensive experiment, or simply because it looks like a sweetheart deal for Alphabet.Because Sidewalk Labs is a sister company to Google LLC, one area of the project many experts focus on is the use of data in sensors throughout the city.The company has said it does not want to profit from the data, and that all the data collected from sensors in public areas of the development will be handled and held by an independent regulator, which will also adjudicate proposals for technology systems collecting that data.… a weaker organization that’s just getting started, that isn’t clear about its mission, its goals or its long-term financial survival, and you’re giving it all this really dangerous stuffAnthony Townsend, author, Smart Cities: Big Data, Urban Hackers and the Quest for a New Utopia Several experts question whether the dramatic plans in the Sidewalk Labs MIDP will ever get built in the first place, or whether the 1,500-page document represents a sort of opening bid in a negotiation, and that the soaring vision will eventually come back down to earth.For one thing, Acton and other experts who worked on Brock Commons in British Columbia have serious questions about the proposed tall wooden buildings.Acton said laminated mass timber is substantially more expensive to build with, and more challenging. In order for UBC’s Brock Commons to meet fire codes, almost all the timber was covered with gypsum board.He said if someone wants exposed wood elements, as Sidewalk Labs is proposing, they need to be much thicker in order to maintain their structural capacity even if they get charred during a fire — and thicker wood elements means much higher costs.For this reason, Acton believes that the beautiful images published by Sidewalk Labs would be prohibitively expensive to realize.Sidewalk Labs’ response to having thicker wood is something called shikkui plaster — “made from natural ingredients, including slaked lime, seaweed extracts, eggshells, and plant fibres” — which treats the wood in a way it said solves the fire protection problem.Robert Jackson, a structural engineer at Fast + Epp with expertise in mass timber, is more optimistic about the Sidewalk Labs project, based on his experience with Brock Commons.It’s an exciting opportunity that needs to be met with sort of an aggressive design. Building an entire city is not nothing, and that’s going to require a lot of complex procurement strategies.Robert Jackson, structural engineer, Fast + Epp Postmedia file photo Jackson said Sidewalk Labs’ plan to spend $80 million to build its own mass timber factory to control the supply chain makes a lot of sense, because it can be difficult procuring the building material.“There are only a few players in Canada and only a few players in the U.S. and with all these projects coming online, it makes procuring the timber for your buildings quite a challenge, so owning the supply chain for a project of that size, in my opinion, absolutely makes sense,” he said.“It’s an exciting opportunity that needs to be met with sort of an aggressive design. Building an entire city is not nothing, and that’s going to require a lot of complex procurement strategies.”But if it doesn’t go well, the Sidewalk Toronto project could undermine confidence in mass timber, and there are reasons for concern.For one thing, mass timber is a very finicky building material, said Christoph Dünser, an architect at Architekten Hermann Kaufmann ZT GmbH in Austria who specializes in mass timber construction and consulted on Brock Commons.During construction, Dünser said, workers need to be very quick and precise to avoid moisture because damp wood expands. He said there simply are not enough builders with experience using mass timber to build on the scale Sidewalk Labs is talking about, and the result could be shoddy buildings with long-term problems.“You know the leaky condo crisis in Vancouver? I’m pretty aware that there is a high risk that this is too fast, and with too little experience,” he said. “If built on that scale, it’s really, really a problem to get people who are capable and able to do that. The scale is something that frightens me a little bit.”Financial Post• Email: jmcleod@nationalpost.com | Twitter: