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Sky-High Dreams Hinge on Wood Construction

by John Brydon-Harris on November 3rd, 2016


Developers see it as a way to achieve higher-density housing at lower cost. It may qualify for green building certification. And it uses prefabricated major building parts, saving on labour costs and cutting construction time virtually in half.

What is this miracle material?

It’s wood, modified by twenty-first-century technology and now taking center stage in a race to build the tallest wooden skyscraper in the world.

North America previously lagged behind Europe, where mass timber construction began to replace concrete block construction in single-family homes around 1990. But we’re up and running now.

The prize is not just bragging rights; tall wooden buildings may be the first major development in high-rise construction since steel and glass, and everyone wants a part of it.

In British Columbia, Canada, an eighteen-story wood construction student residence was completed in August 2016 and is due to open in mid-2017. Brock Common will be one of the world’s tallest buildings made mostly of wood, according to the University of British Columbia.

But perhaps not for long. A thirty-five-story wood building is planned in Paris. And in London, the Barbican Center addition is expected to top off at eighty stories.

While North American building codes still limit wood construction to a maximum of six stories, that’s changing. Respected Chicago architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP produced a report as long ago as 2013 that included construction techniques for building a forty-two-story wood building. And this year, the US Department of Agriculture and the lumber industry awarded prizes to two groups planning wooden skyscrapers: one, a ten-story condo to be built in Chelsea in Manhattan; the other, a twelve-story complex in Portland, Oregon.

Technological change 

The continuing development of cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels made this sky-high dream possible. The technique involves gluing and pressing the wood together in alternate directions to increase its strength and stability. Unlike regular wood, CLT panels can’t twist and don’t shrink. While fireproofing remains a concern, a technique of charring the wood’s surface is said to make it fire-resistant by protecting the structure underneath.

Vancouver architect Michael Green, who has already constructed tall wood buildings around the world, knows its strength. As he told CBC News: “These buildings have to perform to the same standards as steel and concrete, and we know they can.”

Because major building parts are prefabricated, installation is simplified, saving on labour costs and cutting construction time to half that of a regular project. The panels are also tighter fitting and therefore more energy efficient. And the use of trees means engineered wood products boast a lower carbon footprint; projects likely will qualify for green certification.

As Valerie Johnson, part owner of D.R. Johnson Wood Innovations in Oregon, recently told Bloomberg News: “We see a horizon that’s very promising out there.” 

Small wonder. The company, one of very few in North America to be certified by the Engineered Wood Association to make CLT, has just expanded its laminating plant to accommodate CLT production.

From → Housing, Real Estate

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