How wooden skyscrapers can revolutionize 21st century architecture

Wooden skyscraper

Wooden skyscrapers, the short version

Leading architects around the world are excited about the prospect of using wood to construct the 21 Century’s skyscrapers. They believe new wood technology is not only capable of creating incredibly durable and safe buildings, but can play a vital role in reducing climate emissions and sequestering carbon.

Wooden skyscrapers, the longer version

For most of us, steel skyscrapers are the epitome of modern architecture. They are clean, elegant, strong, durable, and resistant to fire. In contract, for many of us, wooden buildings seem a thing of the past: flimsy, prone to wear and tear, and liable to burn down at the smallest sign of fire. We believe we’ve progressed past wood as a major architectural component.

Leading architects from around the world are beginning to challenge this mindset of ours. They are proposing wooden skyscrapers as the wave of the future. They claim doing so has a wide range of benefits, including:

  • Using less energy to manufacture and even sequestering carbon
  • Promoting the planting and sustainable management of forests around the world
  • Allowing for taller buildings on the same foundations (because wooden is significantly lighter), and thus more accommodating of our growing populations

And on top of that, architects say that these new wooden skyscrapers are just as durable and fire-resistant as steel skyscrapers.

This might seem hard to fathom, but the secret is in a relatively new wood technology called cross-laminated timber (CLT). CLT is essentially glorified, huge slabs of plywood. They are incredibly strong and thick and therefore take on many of the beneficially architectural qualities of steel. Because of this, we can now have epic wooden skyscrapers, when before we were much more constrained in how tall we could make them.

Many of us seem to equate steel with modern: tough, uniform, clean-looking. But perhaps not too long from now this will look quite different to us. Perhaps we will begin to see steel as wasteful, rigid, and overly cold and sterile. Perhaps we will grow to see wooden buildings as cutting-edge: beautiful, sleek, and much more compatible with a carbon-neutral world.

Wooden skyscrapers, in practice

Wooden skyscrapers are by no means commonplace yet, but they are beginning to crop up around the world. Currently, the world’s tallest wooden building, the 18-story Brocks Common Tallwood House, stands in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Japanese company Sumitomo Forestry is a building a 70-story timber building in Tokyo, which will be the tallest in the world upon completion. PLP Architecture and Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture have proposed an 80-story timber building for London, which is awaiting approval.

While more research, policy development, and experience is needed to make this technology truly ready for mass production, early results are very promising.

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