There’s already a 14-story timber tower. Why designers are pushing to re-embrace a construction material as old as human history.
Think of a modern cityscape and any number of materials come to mind: the glass and steel of an office tower, the stately brick and stone of a townhouse, the asphalt pavement and stark concrete canyons of 20th-century urban redevelopment.
All of these have, at some time, heralded visions of the city’s future. Now, if a growing chorus of architects have their way, the next generation of urban buildings will be crafted from an innovative, versatile structural material that’s key to sustainable large-scale development. You’d know it as wood.
In the quest to limit the energy and resource costs of construction, a number of global architects have begun designing and constructing modern buildings from a substance we now associate more with suburban homes. Thanks to novel composites, several multistory buildings have already been erected around the world with timber skeletons, and plans for taller buildings are in the works.
“We all are hard-wired to see the city as being steel, glass, and concrete,” says Yugon Kim, an architect at design firm IKD who curated a new exhibit on the benefits and possibilities of timber construction at the Boston Society of Architects’ BSA Space in Boston. “Our proposal is that we need timber to save us.”
They’ve been making a larger argument to the industry and to policy makers that to build cities with a lower environmental impact, wood is not just promising but necessary. It’s a plentiful resource that grows back relatively quickly, and even pulls carbon out of the atmosphere as it does.
But its advocates are up against some significant obstacles. On this scale, the construction industry is set up to work in concrete and steel, and doesn’t change course easily. Architects are unaccustomed to envisioning their designs in timber. They also face building codes shaped by wood’s long record as a flammable material. In that sense, its advocates are fighting history in their effort to bring it back.
The buildings they envision have been dubbed “plyscrapers.” Their halting arrival into the mainstream of architecture represents a test case for whether the goal of sustainability can motivate a reversal of both long-term construction norms and the laws that have grown around them. And in the long run, they also may offer the prospect of putting the look and feel of cities through a whole new transformation.
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