A Douglas fir tree is a marvel of natural engineering. The trunk, made mostly of slender dead cells each a few millimeters long, can reach heights of 100 meters. It's supple enough to sway in windstorms without snapping, yet strong enough to support its weight—up to 160 metric tons. Kilogram for kilogram, a wooden beam made from this fir is 3.5 times stronger than steel. A single tree can store half its weight in carbon and can replace itself, given enough time. Its luminous, patterned wood can be sculpted into virtually any shape.
Not far from Canadian forests thick with Douglas firs, the most ambitious effort yet to harness these remarkable qualities in a human structure is rising. A few kilometers from downtown Vancouver, on the University of British Columbia campus, workers are putting the finishing touches on an 18-story dormitory set to be the world's tallest wooden building. As skyscrapers go, the boxy structure is modest. Yet it represents a leap forward for a material long regarded as too weak, variable, and flammable to support high-rise buildings. read more >>