For over 100 years, we’ve used steel and concrete to reach higher and higher into the sky. They took us all the way from the 13 stories of the Tacoma building in 1893 to the 211 stories in the Burj Khalifa today. But neither material is particularly environmentally friendly. And that’s a big problem when you realize that 70% of the world’s population could be urban by 2050.
Architect Michael Green has an idea, an old idea. He wants to build a new generation of high-rises out of wood. And he’s working on multiple projects, including a 30-story building for Vancouver, that would see this happen.
"As I write this, I sit in a 105-year-old building that is 7-stories tall and supported by solid wood columns all the way into the parking garage below the ground," Green writes Co.Design. "Today our building codes don’t conceive of building 7-stories in wood, but 100 years ago it was common in our region. The question I ask is; have we lost our spirit to innovate when we are just now catching up to century old ideas?"
Green’s work is fueled by more than passion or tradition: The last several decades have seen several breakthroughs in wood technology. Engineered wood—smaller pieces glued together, not so differently from what you see in IKEA furniture—can create a stronger metawood that we’re already using in smaller scale construction. "The manufacturers typically cut large panels of the engineered wood into small beams," explains Green. "The change is that we are asking them to keep the panels whole. This gives us much larger structural pieces to work with, which changes the scale of what we can do." The other benefit of this engineered wood is that it’s rapidly renewable through sustainable forestry (at least in theory).
But what would it actually be like to work or live in a wooden skyscraper? With wooden support walls and wooden floors, would anyone dare put down, say, hardwood floors?
"A tall wood building is just like a steel or concrete building. It has an exterior made of any number of materials that an architect would like: glass, steel, wood, stone, anything," explains Green. "No matter what the structure has to be covered to protect it from weather just as one does with concrete and steel. Inside it can have exposed wood or it can be completely covered in drywall and look like any other building. It’s just a structural system; the look is up to the architect and building owner."
To reach 20 stories, let alone the 30 stories in his Vancouver plan, Green admits there are waves of testing to complete and gaps to fill in the engineering. Also, we’ll need to bioengineer a new breed of less aggressive woodpecker.
[Hat tip: Archinect]