Construction Is Going Back To The Future With Wooden Skyscrapers

Timber! Construction companies are searching for an alternative to glass and steel.

By Jeff Vasishta January 11, 2017

Wood is more fire resistant than steel. Who knew? Building from wood is so ancient it doesn’t even qualify as being old school. It’s from the school they knocked down to build the old school. Or maybe the one before that. However, wood building technology has advanced a long way from the days of sandals and togas—and if the current frenzy persists wooden skyscrapers could become successors to the glass and steel monolith’s crowding city skylines across the globe.

Numerous structures over the world—whether in medieval Britain or ancient Japan—attest to the durability of wood. The question has always been not how long would it last—but how high could it go. Going high requires strength, lots of strength. New advances in engineered wood have resulted in cross-laminated-lumber (CLT) which when used with  a hybrid form known as concrete-jointed timber gives the strength it needs to reach for the stars.

Replace conventional lumber with bamboo and the strength increases. Concrete floors help alleviate concerns about fire. But it’s one thing to say wood is strong, and another—to expect people to move into the 40th floor of a wooden skyscraper, look outside and see a thunder storm or hurricane and not be concerned.

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“If you don’t look after it, steel and concrete will fail just as quickly as timber,” Michael Ramage, head of the Centre for Natural Material Innovation at the University of Cambridge in Britain told The Economist. Dr Ramage and his colleagues are also testing wooden materials for tall buildings, including, the Oakwood Tower, an 80-story, 1000 feet wooden skyscraper—a joint project between the renowned university’s architecture department and PLP Architecture. If approved, it will be the highest wooden building in the world.

Whether building code enforcers agree with wood embracing architects and engineers remains to be seen. In the U.S., cities can restrict wooden buildings to five or six stories. In other parts of the world, taller wooden structures are catching on …ahem…like a house on fire.

In Sweden, a 19-story structure, the “Sida vid Sida” is being proposed. When completed, it will be the tallest structure in Scandinavia. In 2012, the 10-story, 104-feet-high Forte residential block was erected overlooking Melbourne’s Victoria Harbour. It was the world’s tallest timber building until The Treet in Central Bergen, Norway, took that title in 2014, by adding an extra four stories. Last year, the Cube, a 109-feet-high apartment block in London’s Shoreditch, became “the tallest cross-laminated timber structure in Europe,” according to its developers.

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For years we’ve heard about the importance of “saving the rainforest” and preserving trees. Images of rock star Sting with lip-plate adorned Amazon tribe members come to mind. Wouldn’t the era of wooden buildings fly in the face of conservation. Apparently not, according to Ramage, who says that, if approved, Oakwood Tower would be made from “white wood,” i.e. wood grown for 40 years specifically for construction purposes.

“Russia has huge timber reserves, largely because we’re finally using less paper,” he explained to CNN.

A fortunate sidebar to the whole save the forest argument is that bamboo is not only extremely durable but also very virulent growing at warp speed compared to other species. 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.

It’s one GMO product we may all be happy to have in our lives.

Jeff Vasishta



Jeff is a writer, husband and father but not necessarily in that order. As a music journalist he counts Prince, Beyonce and Quincy Jones amongst those he’s interviewed. He's also owned and flipped homes in Brooklyn, NJ, CT and PA.

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