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Environment / Climate change

Could the skyscrapers of the future be built from wood?

When skyscrapers first emerged, they used durable construction materials (reinforced steel, glass, concrete) that were, nonetheless, lighter and stronger than bricks or plaster. It was this that allowed them to rise far higher than any buildings that had come before – and the shiny and futuristic appearance that resulted became inseparable from the concept of “skyscraper”.

Today, though, the environmentally-unfriendly nature of these materials is leading some architects and urbanists to rethink skyscraper construction. They’re proposing going back to a rather more old-fashioned building material: wood.

From a piece at IT ProPortal:

While untreated beams of wood simply aren’t strong enough to hold up the huge weight of high-rise buildings, a type of super-plywood has been developed to step up to the challenge. By gluing layers of low-grade softwood together to create timber panels, today’s so-called “engineered timber” is more like what you’d find in Ikea flat-packed furniture than traditional sawn lumber. We’ve even got a nice moniker for the new breed of eco-friendly building: ‘plyscrapers’.

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Michael Green, a Canadian architect, is one of the biggest evangelists of wooden skyscrapers. He’s written a 200-page instruction manual about wooden buildings, distributed for free, and spoke about the “necessity” of wooden skyscrapers in a TED Talk:

Almost half of our greenhouse gases are related to the building industry… The problem I see is that, ultimately, the clash of how we solve that problem of serving three billion people that need a home, and climate change, are a head-on collision about to happen.

So far, Melbourne’s home to the tallest “plyscraper” in the world (a whopping 10 storeys). But this will soon be overtaken by a 14-storey wooden building under construction in Norway.

Melbourne’s wooden high rise. Image: Lend Lease.

And there’s scope to go much, much taller. A study carried out by Skidmore, Owings & Merill, the architecture firm behind the Burj Khalifa and One World Trade Centre, concluded that a 125m tall skyscraper built mostly from timber would be structurally and economically feasible, and could reduce the building’s carbon footprint by 75 per cent.

There are still obstacles to overcome. If the practice becomes widespread, there’s the issue of deforestation to consider (though Green argues that the industry could develop “models for sustainable forestry”). And, of course, the elephant in the room – wood, unlike steel or concrete, is flammable. It might take the insurance industry a little while to get comfortable with the idea.
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