A 40-Story Skyscraper Built of Wood May Not Be Far from Reality

A 40-Story Skyscraper Built of Wood May Not Be Far from Reality

By Patrick Sisson
A new generation of buildings are proving that tall wood construction is a rising trend.

When Skidmore, Owings & Merrill built the Dewitt-Chestnut Apartments in Chicago in 1965, the 42-story building was by-the-books as far as materials went, another stately concrete-and-steel structure to add to the skyline. Nearly 50 years later, a SOM research project is suggesting a new way to create buildings that reach for the sky, utilizing timber reinforced with concrete. Last year, the Timber Tower Research Project showed that a 40-story, wood-frame skyscraper, built to mimic Dewitt-Chestnut, is not only physically possible, but would result in a 60 to 75 percent smaller carbon footprint.

While the idea of 42 stories of wooden floors stacked on top of each other may seem shaky, the SOM Timber Tower Research project showed that such a sustainable superstructure is in fact possible. The concept calls for a concrete jointed timber frame to keep the structure anchored. More research, as well as building codes changes, would need to occur before anybody breaks ground. As cities look for sustainable construction to house growing populations, architects are starting to turn to wood as a more responsible solution.

What once sounded like a green construction dream is now a growing trend, being built board by board in high-rises springing up across North America, Europe, and Australia. According to Oscar Faoro, Project Manager of the U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition, a new $2 million, government-sponsored contest to encourage more wood-based, multi-story construction, the trend evolved in Europe and is now having a 'moment.' The Stadthaus, a nine-story building in London built in 2008 with cross-laminated timber, and the cutting-edge LCT 1 in Austria, catalyzed forestry councils and builders to investigate opportunities to experiment with these sustainable wooden structures. New embedded connectors that allow for stronger support between steel and wood and concrete and wood are pushing the industry forward, and skyward: architect Michael Green, who just finished the Wood Innovation and Design Centre, is eyeing a 30-story wood building ("The engineering," he's said, "is the easy part"). 

Shigeru Ban's vision for more sustainable, human architecture bears fruit with the seven-story Tameida Office Building in Zurich, a commercial center with blond wood joinery decorating the interior. The playful wooden curves in the lobbies and stairwells recall freshly sanded wood in a carpenter's workshop, giving the entire complex an airy, light complexion.

"There's a demand in the marketplace for something different," Faoro says. "What really will make this work is prefab construction. Moving finished components to the site will results in less transportation and quicker construction."

Oakland's Cathedral of Light, designed by SOM, is just a single-story building, but the gracious curves showcase the artistry possible with taller wooden structures. Reaching a height of 136 feet, the wood-and-glass sanctuary exudes a calming presence.

Dwell takes a look at some of the more influential examples of this trend to examine how engineers are experimenting with one of mankind's most ancient building materials.

This stunning concept, a bid to design a future-forward skyscraper for Stockholm, appears like a kind of living building, with the terraced, diamond-shaped facade that acts like a multi-story trellis. Berg | C.F. Møller Architects conceived of this 34-story structure as a beacon, and its airy form and clean finish certainly would stand as a shining example of the Scandinavian aesthetic.

Quebec's $21 million Stade Telus, a 100,000-square-foot stadium completed in 2011, makes sustainability look good with its gracefully arched wooden roof.

The metaphors uniting the different facets of the Cenni di Cambiamento housing development in Milan are community and sustainability, so it only follows the mixed-use project would also be a showcase of timber-frame construction.

A forest of material—Douglas fir, cedar, hemlock, pine and spruce, as well as engineered wood products—came together in the Wood Innovation and Design Center in Vancouver, a six-story statement for tall-wood structures. Designer Michael Green isn't stopping there, however; he's floated a proposal for a 30-story timber structure that would truly take over the skyline.

The Cedar Hall residences at the University of Washington not only allowed for a more affordable and green expansion for the campus, but the wooden frames are also more flexible and modular, giving the dorm the ability to be reconfigured over time.


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