Timber Towers: Bringing Wooden Skyscrapers to the U.S.

By Andy Hehl, U.S. Manager of Kebony

In cityscapes across the world, wood is slowly but surely making its way back. Architects in Australia, England and Norway have helped spark a global resurgence in wooden skyscrapers over the past few years. But while others have been quick to follow in their footsteps, American architects haven’t yet adopted this new trend.

Outside of a recently completed wooden skyscraper in Portland, Oregon and the proposed construction of a ten-story wooden building in New York City’s West Chelsea neighborhood, few projects are set to get underway anytime soon. The Timber Innovation Act could help change that. Proposed by Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) in April, this bill seeks to accelerate the use of wood in U.S. buildings through grants, competition and more. If successful, big benefits could follow.

Environmental benefits

Although concrete and steel remain two of the most popular commercial and residential building materials today, they are the most dangerous to the atmosphere, and the continued use of traditional building materials could spell trouble for the environment. The production of both concrete and steel emits tremendous levels of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas responsible for anthropogenic climate change.

Wood serves as an environmentally friendly alternative for architects who wish to engage in high-density, urban construction without leaving behind a carbon footprint. In fact, the positive effects of replacing cement, steel, aluminum and plastics with wood have already been witnessed in Switzerland. The switch to wood in the construction and furniture manufacturing industries there have led to CO2 reductions of up to one million tons every year.

Despite misguided safety concerns, many wooden buildings also exceed the fire standards of regular steel and concrete buildings. Small pieces of wood that sparked the Great Fire of London in 1666 and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 have now been replaced with large blocks that are much harder to set ablaze. Since wood burns predictably, fire engineers can even calculate how large a block of wood needs to be to create a protective layer that helps keep a building upright.

Yet another benefit of wood is its weight. Approximately four times lighter than concrete, wood is much easier to transport to and from construction sites than concrete or steel. In addition to cutting environmental emissions during the material production phase, architects that opt for wood could also slash the amount of energy used to get materials in place.

Psychological benefits

Introducing wooden structures to urban environments could result in positive psychological effects for residents. For example, research has found that students in classrooms with whole-wood interiors experience lower levels of stress and anxiety while studying compared to pupils in normal control classrooms. These same positive effects also translate to office spaces, where the use of wooden products can improve a visitor’s first impression of workers.

By replicating the effect of spending time outside in nature, the presence of wood can even increase positive interactions between residents in aged care facilities. With these findings in mind, many architects and designers have already started looking for ways to incorporate interior and exterior wood applications into future projects, including skyscrapers. Often seen as the focal point of a community, skyscrapers impact millions of residents and city-goers every day. Using wood to help construct such buildings could introduce measurable health and well-being benefits to an entire community, rather than just a classroom or retirement home. By extending positive psychological benefits of wood to a greater portion of the community, architects open the door for a more welcoming and vibrant environment.

Financial benefits

Not only does wood offer environmental and psychological benefits, but it also stands to save architects money. The use of polyurethane glues has made it possible to bind smaller pieces of wood into cross-laminated timbers, which, despite their strength and size, are just one-fifth the weight of concrete. Rather than reserving a significant portion of their budget for transportation costs, architects can focus on drawing up new ways to use these large, lightweight panels of wood.

While some might argue that wood is more expensive than steel or concrete, the real savings come during the construction phase. Since it takes less time to build with wood, the costs of construction pale in comparison to a structure made from traditional materials.

An epicenter of innovation, the U.S. is more than capable of dotting its skylines with wooden skyscrapers. Sustainably harvested forests near major cities such as Atlanta are perfect for providing interested architects with the supplies needed to turn their designs into reality, all while limiting negative impacts on the environment. Spruce, redwood and maple trees from temperate rainforests in the Pacific Northwest are yet another example of resources that architects can responsibly tap into without causing lasting ecological harm.

Despite its checkered past, perhaps no major U.S. city is better-suited to adopt this green building trend than Chicago. The city’s infamous fire has helped transform it into a top architectural destination. From the John Hancock to the Willis Tower, the Second City” is second-to-none when it comes to architectural history. Interestingly enough, Chicago is also home to the world’s first skyscraper, making it the ideal location for one of the first wooden skyscrapers in the U.S.

Several buildings that survived the Great Chicago Fire still stand today. Now that wooden buildings exceed the fire standards of cement or steel buildings, these skyscrapers could have similarly long lifespans. With reduced carbon emissions, decreased anxiety levels for residents and workers and big savings on construction costs, building “timber towers” in Chicago and around the country could prove revolutionary in more ways than one.

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