The Skyscrapers of the Future Will Be Made of Wood

By Peter Wilson, Edinburgh Napier University | May 22, 2015 10:02 am
The proposed 34-story wood tower in Stockholm. © Berg | C.F. Møller Architects

The proposed 34-story wood tower in Stockholm. © Berg | C.F. Møller Architects

Vancouver-based architect Michael Green was unequivocal at a conference at which I heard him speak a while ago: “We grow trees in British Columbia that are 35 stories tall, so why do our building codes restrict timber buildings to only five stories?”

True, regulations in that part of Canada have changed relatively recently to permit an additional story, but the point still stands. This can hardly be said to keep pace with the new manufacturing technologies and developments in engineered wood products that are causing architects and engineers to think very differently about the opportunities wood offers in the structure and construction of tall buildings.

Green himself produced a book in 2012 called Tall Wood, which explored in detail the design of 20-story commercial buildings using engineered timber products throughout. Since then he has completed the Wood Innovation and Design Center at the University of North British Columbia which, at 29.25 meters (effectively eight stories), is currently lauded as the tallest modern timber building in North America.

How Timber Grew Tall

Until recently, the potential for using timber in towers was very limited. Platform timber frame – the system used, for example, to construct more than 70% of Scotland’s housing, by my calculations – is effective up to seven stories in height. In Scotland, we build four or five stories in timber as a matter of course. But any higher than seven stories and structural challenges and simple economics always made it less effective.

The game-changer reached the skyline in 2009, not in North America but in London. The Stadthaus in Hackney’s Murray Grove, designed by Waugh Thistleton Architects and Techniker engineers, is a nine-story building comprising 29 apartments, constructed almost entirely from cross-laminated solid wood panels. These provide strength, stability and, importantly, a convenient way of locking in considerable volumes of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

This became possible following the commercial development of cross-laminated timber in Austria in the 1990s, its increasing application in the UK, and the decision by Hackney Council that the carbon agenda was more important than the strict application of fire regulations that related to old forms of timber technology.

Environmental Benefits

This ability to use a renewable material to provide a positive response to a key environmental issue facing the construction industry, namely global warming, is nothing short of transformational. The use of concrete is already responsible for 5% of global greenhouse-gas emissions.

The idea of using timber for taller buildings is still in the early days of being accepted across the industry, even if many engineers quickly realized the potential offered by Murray Grove. The ten-story cross-laminated timber Forte Building in Melbourne appeared shortly afterwards, and then a 14-story apartment block in Bergen was completed only weeks ago. On a different scale entirely, and scheduled to complete in 2023, will be the 34-story block in Stockholm’s Västerbro district, which will push the boundaries of timber construction to new limits.

Treet, the 14-story apartment building in Bergen, Norway. Credit Bergen and Omegn Building Society

Treet, the 14-story apartment building in Bergen, Norway. Credit Bergen and Omegn Building Society

A similar story exists in other, perhaps more conservative, cities such as Vienna, where plans have recently been published for an 24-story mixed-use complex of apartments, hotel, restaurants and office space, the construction of which will be 76% timber. A recent study by SOM architects and engineers has meanwhile indicated that a 42-story concrete and glass apartment building the firm completed in its native Chicago in the early 1960s could now be recreated using a timber/concrete hybrid form of construction.

Much research and development still needs to take place on connection design and other issues before such a structure is likely to see the light of day, but there is no doubt the only way is up as far as future timber construction is concerned.

Looking to the Future

Why the urge to build so high with wood? Simple demographics indicate the scale of the global challenge and the need to think very differently about how we create the towns and cities of the future. Current projections indicate that 80% of the world’s population of eight billion will live in urban situations by 2050. Estimates for China alone indicate that in the next decade, some 75m multiple family-housing units will be required to accommodate the approximately 300m people expected to migrate into major urban and adjacent suburban areas.

Together with international concerns over accelerating climate change and the destructive scale and nature of the extraction processes involved in converting the raw materials required by conventional building technologies, this demands a paradigm shift in the way we conceive and construct new urban environments. The industry is looking at far more extensive application of renewable materials, with wood the only genuine candidate.

At present it is dense rather than excessively tall urban projects that are setting the agenda. Given that the London Building Acts were first predicated as a consequence of the Great Fire in 1666, it is remarkable that the city is now seeing a huge expansion in solid timber building projects. The latest and biggest is a cross-laminated timber nine-story block of 123 apartments that recently began in Hackney.

Will we see this tendency extend to other cities in the UK in the near future? Given the enormous housing numbers projected by politicians of all persuasions during the recent election, it is highly likely that engineered timber structures will take a leading role. As well as the inherent environmental benefits, other important attractions include the speed of erection and the potential for precision offsite manufacture. If so, they will entirely change the way we think about wood construction.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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  • rrocklin

    Wood burns and concrete and steel do not.

    • Sandy Gibbs

      So would the building be completely covered with sprinklers or some other fire suppression method? One cooking accident could take down the whole building!

      • Alex Wimbush

        yes, in Canada the code requires the entire building to be sprinklered (including balconies), and exit stairwells are of non-combustible construction

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    why do our building codes restrict timber buildings to only five stories?” Wood frame catastrophically fails beginning at 233 °C. Steel deforms for load-bearing at 590 °C – and doesn’t emit toxic and flammable fumes (e.g., pyroligneous acid) while doing it. Wood is attacked by termites and dry rot. Wood strength is immediately compromised by a roof or pipe water leak, then biologicals. Wood has knots and grain. Fashioning wood wastes a large fraction of its tree. Composite wood fumes formaldehyde and such. Rebar versus the Cascadia subduction zone.

    Perpetually wet Vancouver does not build wooden high rises because Canadian engineers are competent. Do not engage any Canadian engineer missing an iron pinky ring. Nobody wears wood.

    • scorpii

      Cross laminated timber is actually very fire resistant, and can withstand higher temperatures before structural failure than usual reinforced steel or similar.

      Don’t confuse traditional older timber style construction with this modern cross laminated timber. I suggest you read a bit about the facts first.

      • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

        My reply with technical specs was censored. Cute – and political.

      • Desiree125632

        Try making cash from comfort of your home an­d get paid weekly… By completing basic jobs you get online… I work three hours every day, five days every week a­nd I earn thousand dollar ea­c­h week…

    • MildredCLewis

      56$/hour@discovermagazine

      >/

  • Vincent Wolf

    The tower of inferno is a good reason NOT to use wood timbers for a skyscraper. They burn and can burn really hot if they get going. Your not going to be able to make safe exits using timber for a stairway!

  • OWilson

    Solar heated wooden structures. Who’d a thunk it?

    Except for natives in the jungle thousands of years ago. :)

    Life was so such more fun and politically correct in those days. We didn’t need no Industrial Revolution, no giant pharmaceutical and agro companies. Just the local shaman and medicine men to collect your chickens.

    • Matthew Lashmit

      “Solar heated wooden structures. Who’d a thunk it?

      Except for natives in the jungle thousands of years ago. :)”

      They were definitely not thinking about heating their homes, they don’t even have windows, just holes in walls.

  • Captain Slog

    How many out there can see that this INSANE idea is just a way of creating a rather over the top funeral Fire for the masses? Just ONE Fire, and WOOF! The whole lot’s a DOG! Bloody Scary!!

    • tmv519

      Just one fire and the whole town might go as it did in Chicago. Bricks or stones is the way to go, they last for centuries.

  • SwampYankee

    We have thousands of old frame “triple-deckers” here in New England and even the ones current with modern building codes are always catching on fire and you wouldn’t want to be the topmost tenant when yours goes.

    Frame houses and low-rise residences are fine in California where the frames will flex in an earthquake and where heating systems are turned on, except for water heaters, only a few days a year

  • Valjean1

    Wouldn’t wood structures have more flexibility in an earthquake?

    • nik

      They do, that’s why most Japanese house are built of wood.

  • Valjean1

    Was there any wood in the twin towers of New York? Do buildings have to be like monoculture?

  • R. Waldo Emerson

    Fire is the main restriction to selling this to the public. Everyone sees FIRE as the enemy of wood, and it’s ability to support the weight of the floors above. One minor fire on a lower floor and the building is compromised and must be vacated and rebuilt (Etenson, 2014). No one wants that kind of inconvenience in their living situation. OK, maybe it’s fine in China. Until they figure out what is going on.

  • Overburdened_Planet

    “These provide strength, stability and, importantly, a convenient way of locking in considerable volumes of atmospheric carbon dioxide.”

    Imagine how much CO2 could be locked up if that wood was still living…

    • Ella

      Jesus, I’m getting tired of this ‘why use wood argument’. Look, the logic is this: Concrete gives off CO2. (More CO2.) Wood does not. Wood is renewable. Use wood. (Less CO2). Plant more trees to replace that wood. (Even lesser CO2.) See?

      • Overburdened_Planet

        It was more a point on less overall consumption than the fine and outstanding math that you provided.

        In other words, why overburden the planet in the first place…

        Hopefully you’re still not tired, and try to have a better day.

      • nik

        CO2 is good for trees, so concrete is good for trees.
        See?

    • Matthew Lashmit

      FYI, they don’t use the living wood for timber, they use the heart wood. The living wood in a tree is in the outer layers. This of course is “wasted” as far as the timber is concerned; generally it is used for something else, I believe usually pulped or mulched.

      • Overburdened_Planet

        All good points, and some I hadn’t thought about.

  • nik

    Concrete is much denser than wood, and is therefore much better at airborne sound reduction.
    Unless the individual units were encased in something of equal sound insulating value to concrete, the noise transmission would make wooden building impossibly noisy.
    eg, someone’s shrieking baby that could be heard several units in all directions.
    The thought is horrendous, never mind the reality.

    • Matthew Lashmit

      Sound travels more easily through a denser medium in general; do you have a cite that’s measured the acoustic properties of concrete? I’ve never seen this claim before.

      • nik

        You missed the critical bit;

        ” better at AIRBORNE sound reduction.”

        Stairwells in blocks of flats have dense concrete designated for walls, for sound reduction, and fire protection.
        However if you want to drive your neighbours mad, bolt a high power speaker directly onto the party wall, and get the wall to resonate.

        Speaker cabinets for high power amplifiers used to be made with concrete or slate to ensure that the sound was projected forward, out of the cabinet, and not backwards through it.

        • Matthew Lashmit

          Yes, that’s why the preferred material for soundproofing concrete walls is more concrete filled panels.

          • nik

            Try comparing dense concrete with wood and plasterboard stud-walls for stopping airborne sound transmission.
            Or failing that refer to UK building regulations for sound insulation, as I did for 25 years as a builder.

          • Matthew Lashmit

            They don’t seriously still use plasterboard in the UK, do they? Or is what they refer to as plasterboard what we refer to as sheetrock or gypsum board?

          • nik

            I think the US term is ‘dry liner’, gypsum [plaster] board seems about ok.
            Concrete walls are faced with sound insulation to reduce reflected sound, [echo] which would also reduce noise from impact to the walls, by preventing direct impacts.
            If you take a hammer directly to concrete walls, the sound will travel very well, as I found when I was a kid, and my dad was bashing holes to hang curtain rails.
            A neighbour in the dwelling next but one, paid us a visit, moaning about their brat waking up.
            Another finish used these days is to fix polystyrene to concrete walls, and then spray them with a cement slurry. {Not good for hanging curtain rails I suspect.}

  • Captain Slog

    We always thought the World’s BIGGEST wooden building was in Wellington, NZ. It is a Government building and is only three or four levels, with a rather large foot print. Its no skyscraper, but it is a beautiful building for its type.
    These skyscrapers sound scary. I can understand if they were to be built WITH Wood, but not OF Wood. That is, the usual Concrete and Steel to build it, and Timber for the insides like Walls, Floors [ the bit you walk on, like Carpet, NOT the entire Level] ceilings and fittings like Benches, Stairs, etc.
    I’m not an Architect or know anything about Building Codes, but I know Common Sense.

  • JWRiley2

    Bamboo a grass is used extensively in Asia as scaffolding on the outside of buildings being constructed. Ironwood is used as a seal on the drive shaft of submarines when it exits the engine room to the outside..Western man uses man made materials where the rest of the world uses environmental natural resources to do the same thing cheaper and more environmentally friendly. Man is the only animal who cuts down the natural enviroment to provide himself with shelter and warmth while the other animals seek shelter under the earth utilizing its constant temperature and their own combined body heat to provide them with warmth.Should I continue on with many examples of how stupid modern man is or just tell you that we are the only civilization in the history of the planet who had an efficient source of traveling on the oceans (wind power and wooden ships) and abandoned it for man made propulsion methods?

    • gsd

      I think you should live in a burrow. Also, transport your goods overseas by sail, and occasionally lose it all to a calm. And always be beaten to market by the guy with the motor boat. Man is the only animal who uses his environment wisely, which is why we’re Number 1. But if you’d be happier as a cave dweller, go for it.

  • Sun Tzu Lao

    Why lock up all that C02 that makes plants grow? More C02, more vigorous plant growth, more C02 sequestered. Not that I believe in that global warming fad, no matter how much data they fake or gerrymander.

  • ikihi

    wood is not the material of the future. the material of the future will allow 5 mile high skyscrapers

    • Tinsley Grey Sammons

      Yes indeed. And the forests are being depleted as it is.

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