Beauty and utility – a gift from the old elm

Sianna Quantz, 5, who spent her first weeks in the BC Children’s Hospital neonatal intensive care unit roughhouses with her little brother Nathaniel. They are seated on a bench made from a stately elm tree that had to come down to build the new Teck Acute Care Centre

Sianna Quantz skipped the length of the fawn-coloured benches outside the new Teck Acute Care Centre, oblivious to the history of the elm tree from which they were crafted.

To the five-year-old, who spent her first days in the neonatal intensive care unit at BC Women’s Hospital + Health Centre, the two long benches formed a perfect runway; long enough to gather speed and close enough to jump from one to the other. 

Her mother Bonnie, who had popped by with her family to see the new building, was interested in the tale of the elm.

Planted by Second World War veterans outside the Shaughnessy Hospital L-wing more than 80 years ago, the tree, believed to be a Rock Elm (Ulmus thomasii), thrived. 

In 2014, when construction of the new building was set to begin, the elm was a 3,600-kilogram behemoth, whose magnificent green canopy provided summer shade and long-limbed branches made interesting winter visuals.

The elm was a campus landmark, beloved by hospital staff. It was also smack in the construction path. 

Well before a construction partner was appointed, it was recognized the tree would have to come down as it was impossible to build around it.

Dana Buchart, Deputy Construction Manager, for Affinity Partnerships, which did the construction, said the elm was positioned about three metres south of the north face of the hospital, well into the new building.

“It couldn’t have been in a much worse location.”

Moving a tree that size was untenable. The cost would have been enormous and chances of survival slim, he said.

So a plan was made to honour the tree. Once the tree was felled, the wood was given to Jason Andrew Hawkins, a local woodworker who designed two live edge benches to be installed outside the building’s main entrance.

Before he could build, Hawkins had to dry the logs. “If you try to use the wood right away, there is so much water in it, that it cracks, twists and cups.”

Hawkins air-dried the wood outdoors for eight months and then moved it inside for another year before he began to work. He designed the benches to complement the building architecture. The round galvanized steel pedestals are a nod to the circular concrete pillars at the base of the wooden supports nearby.  

What Hawkins loves most about his craft is transforming old wood that would have been wasted into something useful and beautiful.

Patti Byron, who once had an office overlooking the elm, was sad to see it come down. “It was a big loss, both for myself and other staff and families who had enjoyed the tree through many seasons,” said Byron, Senior Director, BC Children’s and BC Women’s Redevelopment Project operational readiness.

But she was pleased when she learned the wood would be used to make the benches. “Now I like to point out to people how they were made.”

The benches are beautiful, she said. The elm has come full circle.

 

 

 

 

  

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