The growth of timber towers

Nick Myall
Wednesday 23 Nov 2016

Timber is gaining favour as a highly adaptable, green building material as many of the old doubts about its suitability for high rise construction are being laid to one side

Wood is currently attracting a lot of attention as a lightweight, highly sustainable product that can be used across a range of building types from affordable homes to towering high rises.

As part of this trend there has been a recent explosion in the number of high rises built using timber. 

Buildings such as Brock Commons in British Columbia and the "Sida vid Sida" designed by architecture firm White Arkitekter in the Swedish city of Skelleftea illustrate this perfectly.

London’s first timber skyscraper is also be a step closer to reality after researchers recently presented Mayor of London Boris Johnson with plans for an 80-storey, 300m high wooden building integrated within the Barbican

At the same time researchers from Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture are working with PLP Architecture and engineers Smith and Wallwork to develop research on the future development of tall timber buildings in central London.

A wave of new types of ultra-strong timber is also helping to drive the growth of these tall-timber buildings.

"There's a whole bunch of new materials made out of wood that are structurally able to build big buildings," says Dr. Michael Ramage, of the Center for Natural Material Innovation at Cambridge University.

Cross-laminated timber sees thin layers of wood placed across one another at right angles, and laminated with fire-resistant glue to create a stronger weave. 

Bamboo -- a material that has been used in Asian construction for centuries – is also creating a lot of interest. 

With a five-times higher growth rate than wood, but similar mechanical properties, there are 31.4 million hectares of bamboo worldwide, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization.

"We're working on engineered bamboo," says Ramage. "We can take the walls of bamboo tubes, cut them up into rectangles and glue them into big slabs.

"You get large pieces of what looks like lumber. But it's stronger than timber."

Kevin Flanagan, a partner at PLP architects, adds that in the future he can imagine the industry genetically modifying wood to make it even more conducive to high-rise construction.

However there is an obvious question which can’t be avoided. Are timber skyscrapers a fire hazard?

Ramage says Oakwood Tower -- which will be an extension of the Barbican Centre in Central London -- will exceed the fire standards of regular steel and concrete buildings.

His centre has been awarded £250,000 ($353,785) from the Engineering Physical Sciences Research Council in the UK to research timber construction techniques, such as fire proofing.

"There is a huge perception problem," says Ramage. "Timber doesn't burn in the way the public imagines. The great fires of London and Chicago were both sparked by very small pieces of wood. Very big pieces of wood are quite hard to set on fire -- they aren't kindling material."

Wood, he says, burns predictably. Therefore, fire engineers can calculate how large a block of wood is needed to provide a protective layer to sustain a building for a certain period of time.

"All buildings over a certain size need to have sprinklers and active fire suppression systems -- irrelevant of whether it's wood, concrete or steel," he adds.

Listen to Michael Hammond's podcast with Russell Acton, Principal at Vancouver-based Acton Ostry Architects who were the brains behind the Brook Commons timber building in Canada

WAN Wood in Architecture Award 2016 now open. Deadline for entries is 31.12.16. For more information contact:


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Nick Myall

News editor

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