Tall wood buildings are imminent in the U.S.

2014-07-17 Ashley Bach

The momentum behind the rise of tall wood buildings around the world is impossible to stop. The positive developments just keep coming. A Yale University study showing the massive environmental benefits behind wood construction. The U.S. federal government spending $1 million to train architects and developers about the benefits of large wood buildings, and another $1 million on a design competition to "demonstrate the architectural and commercial viability" of using wood for high-rise construction.

Tall wood buildings going up around Europe and Canada. One of the world's leading architecture firms, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, saying that even larger wood buildings - hundreds of feet tall - are technically possible, environmentally friendly and financially competitive. The Pacific Northwest becoming a potential hub for wood buildings in the U.S., with an Idaho timber company becoming the first to sell cross-laminated timber (the key component in large wood buildings) in America.

But what hasn't happened until now is the construction of a tall, modern wood building in the United States. 

No more. Michael Green, the Vancouver architect responsible for the largest wood building in Canada earlier this year, said he's now working on a 100-foot, 61,000-square-foot wood building in the Midwest. He told a reporter from the Vancouver Sun that he had to be cagey for now about the details, but that the U.S. is about to join the large wood building movement in a big way.

In the 23-staff Michael Green Architecture firm’s 105-year-old, wood-frame Gastown office this week, Green literally itched to name the Midwest city where “a very large private developer” should soon announce the first of perhaps 15 such (large wood building) projects. “After years of people thinking we’re crazy,” said Green, who advocated for tall wooden buildings at the recent TEDx Vancouver conference, “we’re changing the world now.”

...“The prominent U.S. developer” of his still-unannounced design reviewed what big banks and other potential clients’ desires before opting for wood construction, Green said. “It wasn’t for environmental or cost reasons” — the complex may cost five per cent more than otherwise — “but because people want it.”

Green is also quoted in a recent Boston Globe story about the rise of wood construction in large buildings. The momentum continues to grow.

The primary argument for tall timber buildings is environmental. Though dense cities are relatively resource-efficient, tall buildings are uniquely costly when you consider the “embodied energy” of their materials—that went into producing, transporting, and installing them. “Concrete is particularly bad, steel’s not much better,” says Daniel Safarik, editor at the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

Trees, on the other hand, can be replanted; the carbon locked into timber offsets the emissions required to harvest and process it. “It’s the only way you can build a carbon-neutral building from the outset,” says Vancouver architect Michael Green, who’s emerged as one the most avid advocates for wood construction.

Energized by this prospect, architects have been trying out new timber structures. In 2009, the nine-story Stadthaus apartment building in East London became the tallest modern timber building in the world, and a 10-story apartment building in Melbourne, Australia, bested it in 2012. A 14-story tower is under construction in Norway.

...Architects want to push higher. In 2012, Green published designs for wooden towers up to 30 stories. C.F. Moller Architects won a design competition with a planned 34-story wood skyscraper for Stockholm. And the global architectural heavyweight Skidmore, Owings & Merrill has a proposal for a 42-story tower with mass timber floors, columns, and shear walls joined together with steel-reinforced concrete joints.


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