A wood skyscraper? Yes, it's happening

2013-03-22 Ashley Bach

It's sad to think that a century ago, wood fell out of favor as a material for large urban buildings. So much so that wood mostly missed out on the later boom of skyscrapers rising in large cities across the world.

Of course, there was one big reason behind this trend: large urban fires in the late 1800s that burned through wood buildings and decimated entire downtowns - think Chicago in 1871 and Seattle in 1889.

One hundred years later, the disappearance of wood from urban cities might be ending.

Watch this video from a Dutch group, Trae Er Miljoe (translated as Wood Initiative), and it's hard not to get excited about wood's potential to make a comeback in the urban sphere. The narration is infectious.

"So, has wood come into fashion? Since when did it ever fall out of fashion? It's always been the best building material, whichever way you look at it."

It's not just hyperbole. Leading architects around the world are starting to recognize that wood is the most sustainable building material we have.

The Atlantic recently had this feature:

So what exactly is Vancouver-based architect Michael Green thinking when he proposes using wood to erect urban skyscrapers and multifamily structures of up to 30 stories? “Earth grows our food,” he says in his 2013 TED Talk. “We should move toward an ethic that the earth should grow our homes.”

For one thing, Green argues, using wood in a more systematic way would be good for sustainability. Buildings account for nearly 50 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. In the construction process, 3 percent of the world’s energy is used for making steel, and 5 percent for concrete.

Wood grows by the power of the sun, and harvesting wood through sustainable forestry practices – enough wood for a 20-story building is grown every 13 minutes, he says – would also be a form of sequestration of carbon, which is otherwise released when a tree falls and decomposes. And there are a lot more dead trees around, not coincidentally because of climate change impacts. The pine beetle, flourishing due to warmer temperatures, has already devastated millions of acres in the Intermountain West.

An Australian group, "Wood. Naturally Better," has this video on British architect Andrew Waugh and his Murray Grove Tower, the world's tallest modern multi-residence timber building.

In answer to the obvious question, wood as an urban construction material is not the same wood of 100 years ago.

Rather than building with two-by-fours, modern-day wood construction would be accomplished using state-of-the-art methods based on super-compressed mass timber panels – essentially giant, sturdy Lego-like assembly. The compression also contributes to protecting against fire, which (Michael) Green concedes is the first question he gets when he talks about building with wood. These denser wood building blocks are actually difficult to burn – like a big fat tree stump in a fireplace – and would of course exist within the context of 21st-century fire suppression systems, including sprinklers.

What's so exciting is that wood could come back into vogue just as demand for large urban buildings skyrockets. 

Perhaps Green’s most convincing argument is the fact that some three billion people will be moving into cities in the coming decades, chronicled in Solly Angel’s book Planet of Cities among others, and they are going to need housing. Accommodating all those mostly poor people requires more sustainable construction, he says.