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The Rise and Rise of Wooden Skyscrapers


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During the American building boom of the 18th and 19th centuries, timber reigned supreme, coveted for its widespread availability, high strength and relatively low cost. But a series of massive fires in that era that consumed entire city blocks resulted in architects exploring the potential for materials such as concrete and steel. The rest is history. Or is it? 

Over the last decade, advances in wood construction have brought architects and engineers around to this erstwhile building material for even large buildings, and builders are excited for the potential of returning wood construction to its former glory.

At present, the tallest wooden structure in the U.S. is T3, a seven-story building in Minneapolis, designed by Vancouver architect Michael Green. Just last year, not far from T3 in Minneapolis, work crews completed construction on what currently reigns as the tallest timber building in the world, an 18-story dormitory building in Vancouver, called Brock Commons. The dormitory’s construction represents a proof of concept that timber is a viable building material for even high buildings.

“Brock Commons is a demonstration of using a product to a height that’s attainable, a timeline that’s quick, and one that’s very economically viable,”

From seven stories to 18, it’s easy to see where this trend line is going, so it’s probably no surprise that architectural firms have begun devising a series of new wooden skyscrapers that will each put their predecessors to shame in size and scope.

Enter the River Beech Tower, a proposed 80-story beechwood building that’s part of a joint research project between Cambridge University and architects and engineers at Perkins + Will and Thornton Tomasetti. The project, according to Wired, aims to suss out how skyscraper-sized timber buildings can make the leap from blueprint to city skylines.

But The Windy City isn’t the only place dreaming of big wooden skyscrapers. Far from it. Another building equal in size to Beech Tower, called Oakwood Tower, has been proposed in London. Stockholm is planning to construct a 436-foot residential building that would be the tallest building in the Swedish capital. And in Tokyo, Japanese company Sumitomo Forestry is planning to complete its W350 project, 1,148-foot-tall timber tower, by 2041, just in time for the firm’s 350th anniversary, according to CNN, and at a cost of some $5.6 billion.

But from a construction standpoint, why is wood of all materials poised to make a comeback?

For starters, it’s more environmentally friendly than concrete and steel. According to a study by the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, substituting wood construction could reduce construction industry emissions by up to 31%, per Futurism.

Wood also traps carbon dioxide emissions. According to The Guardian, a 20-story concrete building generates 1,200 tons of carbon, the same size wooden building actually traps 3,100 tons. That net difference is the equivalent of removing 900 cars from the road for a year.

According to The Guardian, a 20-story concrete building generates 1,200 tons of carbon, the same size wooden building actually traps 3,100 tons.

Cross-laminated timber is roughly the same price as concrete and steel, and since it’s lighter, fewer fossil fuels are burned in transporting it. The W350’s cost estimate of $5.6 billion is expected to drop considerably, thanks to expected technological advances between now and its scheduled 2041 completion date, Futurism reports.

Wood is also a renewable resource, despite threats of deforestation. Less than 1% of the world’s forests are harvested annually, according to Futurism. If timber is harvested sustainably and responsibly, it can actually be a healthy thing for the forests, and fit into its natural cycle of regrowth.

Mankind’s desire to build taller and taller structures has a new, old material in its sights. In the years and decades to come, city skylines around the world could be dotted with ever-taller wooden skyscrapers.

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