Design

It’s Time to Start Building Wooden Skyscrapers

by Mark Hay

December 11, 2014

In 2023, Swedish architecture firm C.F. Møller will transform the Stockholm skyline—and perhaps the very notion of skyscrapers. Last December, the designers won a competition organized by HSB Stockholm to honor the local real estate titan’s upcoming centenary with an ostentatious new high-rise. Møller submitted three flashy, modern designs, but the public latched onto one in particular that will sound, to many, intuitively insane: a thirty-four story tower made almost entirely out of wood, save for a spindly concrete core and a few steel poles on the ground floor. If constructed, the tower will be the largest mostly-wooden structure in the world. But rather than a one-off, it could be the clarion call needed to rouse the public around a new architectural trend.

The movement, partially inspired by pre-modern all-wood towers like Russia’s 120-foot Kizhi Pogost church, is best summarized by the title of a 200-page manifesto, written and distributed freely by Canadian architect-turned-wood-scion Michael Green: The Case for Tall Wood Buildings. Bucking conventional wisdom about the fragility and flammability of wood, architects like Green believe this most traditional material can rival concrete’s cost and durability, while trumping it environmentally. And with projects like Møller’s tower or this year’s $2 million USFDA prize for wood tower design innovation, it seems like these futurist lumberjacks have finally turned a corner in their quest to capture institutional and public support.

At the center of this movement is a new breed of engineered timber. Pioneered by Austrian construction materials manufacturer KLH over the last decade or so, this “innovation” is basically just pieces of low-grade softwood panels, like the ones used in Ikea furniture, either glued or laminated together in alternating layers of longitudinal and latitudinal slats. Usually six inches thick and coated with anti-charring materials, the moisture-retaining planks are as sturdy as concrete, do not warp as erratically as steel in a fire (meaning their controlled, slow burn may be safer), and can be easily customized to a project’s specifications. The “plyscrapers” constructed with such lightweight materials go up faster and at comparable prices to concrete skyscrapers. Research by the Chicago-based Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, the architects behind the Burj Khalifa, suggests that this material, with the aid of minor steel and concrete reinforcement, can support structures up to 42 stories and over 400 feet tall.

Although Møller’s tower is still just a glint in an architect’s eye, others have already taken the material for a test spin. Dornbirn, Austria boasts an eight-story structure, London has a nine-story apartment complex, Melbourne recently built a ten-story pilot project, and Bergen, Norway has begun construction on a fourteen-story tower. Just this year, Prince George in BC, Canada completed their Wood Innovation and Design Center, only six actual stories high, but the height of a ten-story structure and seen as a proof of concept for the more conservative regulatory environment of North America. (Americans have only just started to kick out ambitious prototype ideas.) And New Zealand, in the wake of the 2010 and 2011 Christchurch earthquakes, plans to use wood architecture as a part of its seismically resistant, green rehabilitation effort. Michael Green hopes that, soon enough, this momentum will allow him to build a 30-story wood tower in Vancouver, BC.

“Frankly we aren’t breaking a sweat,” Green told reporters this year. “It’s only public perception and emotion trumping science that stalls us moving higher.”

Such a trend could be a vital shift in the rapidly growing and noxious modern skyscraper industry. Although the first (12 story, 180 foot) high-rise only went up, under much suspicion, in Chicago in 1884, modern monstrosities like the 2010 Burj Khalifa in Dubai now rise to over 200 stories and 2,700 feet. With a new skyscraper rising every five days in China between 2011 and 2014, the construction involved in these concrete-and-steel behemoths now amounts to 47 percent of global greenhouse emissions (10 percent of all carbon dioxide), while 20 percent of the materials involved end up in the trash. And with up to 70 percent of the world’s population set to go urban by 2050, these numbers will only continue to rise.

Wood worshippers promise that this new, old material can drastically cut emissions, turning upward urban expansion into a sustainable prospect. One cubic meter of their super-strong wood building blocks, they argue, can sequester a metric ton of carbon dioxide. That’s the equivalent of removing hundreds of cars from the road for a year for every wooden skyscraper erected. And in places like British Columbia, Canada, it’s seen as a vital way to channel the millions of acres of dying forest succumbing to blight like the blue-staining fungus epidemic, which has prompted the local government to sponsor bills like the 2009 Wood First Act promoting excess pine as a sustainable building material. 

Yet right now the rising tide of timber is held in check by harsh regulatory regimes and a lack of dire need. Concrete and steel work just fine, so if one’s not factoring in environmentalism, wood innovation is just unnecessary. Proving its worth would also require substantial, high-level research to prove to skeptics that wood is not as flammable as historical fires would suggest. This historical precedent has created, especially in North America, a bevvy of strict limits on wood structures (usually capped at five or six stories, but varied from city-to-city), which would have to be appealed and overcome sequentially—a daunting task even for advocates.

But construction projects in Europe and Oceania, and the advocacy of major architectural firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Arup, may provide the experimental evidence to sway cautious legislators and city planners. Especially with programs like the “Made in Rural America” initiative desperately searching for new uses for wood, it seems as if the preponderance of evidence may soon intersect with emerging incentives and trump conservative attitudes and construction lobbyists. If that’s the case, then by the time Møller’s tower rises in Stockholm in a decade, we’ll already be living in a wonderfully woodier world.

Photos courtesy of Berg | C.F. Møller Architects

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It’s Time to Start Building Wooden Skyscrapers