In the lead in to his recent book Wood Architecture Now by forward-thinking publisher Taschen, architectural historian Philip Jodidio summarizes the possibilities of wood as an architectural material: “Wood is sustainable, solid and attractive. It can be bent and shaped to the most modern of designs.” Indeed the possibilities for wood seem endless. As the material of the moment for contemporary architecture, World Architecture News is celebrating wood and its new and dynamic uses with an inaugural Wood in Architecture Award.
At our tremendously successful World Architecture Day 2013 event in New York City, architects from across the globe came together to discuss the world’s housing crisis. According to current projections, by the year 2035, 3 billion homes will be needed, which amounts to the construction of 100,000 a day. This is good news for architects and also for the wood industry, as this is the dominant material for residential construction.
While concrete and steel have their enthusiastic supporters - and rightly so - these materials combined account for 5-8% of the total greenhouse gases emitted globally, making wood an attractive choice for the sustainable set who want to green the planet and push the envelope in this arena. But aside from sustainability, new processes like cnc milling and other computer-driven design and manufacturing techniques are showcasing wood in new and interesting ways that speak to new possibilities.
One such possibility that has the Twitter stream abuzz is the idea that we will someday soon have tall towers built of wood. In reputable schools across the world, including at Yale University in the United States and some in Great Britain, a serious discussion about timber towers is taking the profession by storm and making headlines in respected publications like the New York Times.
Historically speaking, wood buildings have been limited to 9 storeys. Yet Michael Green, an architect in Vancouver, who is currently designing a 90ft-tall mixed-use building in British Columbia, and tall building specialist Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM), which is leading a study on timber tower research, are predicting that it’s possible to take engineered wood to far greater heights, possibly beyond 42 storeys. It’s no longer a question of if we will see wooden skyscrapers in our future but when.
Mass timber solutions, including cross-laminated timber (CLT), glue-laminated timber (glulam) and laminated strand lumber (LSL) combined with expert engineering means we can now build taller, smarter, and more efficiently with wood.
In its study, SOM outlines how building a 42-storey wood tower is possible. The building would be constructed almost entirely of mass timber products with supplementary reinforced concrete at the highly stressed locations - the connecting joints. "This system plays to the strengths of both materials and allows the engineer to apply sound tall building engineering fundamentals. The result is believed to be an efficient structure that could compete with reinforced concrete and steel while reducing the carbon footprint by 60 to 75%," says the report.
The tower could be designed using different species and grades of wood, which would be chosen according to their desired performance characteristics, namely strength and stiffness, and whether they would be used in flooring systems or as columns. SOM is not the only practice beginning to sit up and take notice of the promise of these new materials. The Swedish firm Berg | C.F. Møller, for example, recently proposed a 34-storey wooden skyscraper for HSB Stockholm's architectural competition. And more such buildings are expected.
Every architect has had the pleasure of working this amazing material, and many to astounding results. Wood is as ancient as earthen architecture and yet it is as contemporary a material as it gets. As the Times article points out, there is much to discover about wood and endless possibilities for architects yet to explore.
For those interested in the WAN Wood in Architecture Award 2013, please see here.