Could Skyscrapers Be Made of Wood?

An excess of dead wood in Canada has designers thinking big

Michael Green

It’s hardly a challenge anymore to build ceilings that kiss the sky. Saudi Arabia will have a 1000 meter high tower in the next few years. And experts think we can go much, much taller. No, the new extreme building challenge is materials. It was steel that made skyscrapers possible to begin with. But, with new technology, could we build one of those monster structures out of wood?

This question doesn’t come simply from the love of an abstract challenge. In Canada, about half of the pine trees might die soon. That would mean an abundance of dead trees. Already the country is full of them—tall, spindly sticks popping out of the ground. Left alone, they will probably burn. So Canada passed the Wood First Act, which asks builders and engineers to use wood before other materials in public buildings.

In building speak, beetle-kill pine is called BKP and can be used to make materials like cross-laminated lumber (CLT). The Economist reports:

European architects have been using CLT for years: a nine-storey CLT apartment block in London is the tallest wooden building in the world, and plans are afoot in Norway to build a 14-storey block by 2014. But their Canadian counterparts are now thinking even bigger. Michael Green, an architect based in Vancouver, has come up with a building system that he says enables 20-storey skyscrapers to be erected safely using engineered wood products like CLT. He is now offering the system free to architects worldwide under an open-source licence.

Green’s designs, in which he describes exactly how to make wooden structures strong enough, can be found here.

Beyond skyscrapers, BKP can be used to make cement stronger and paint more durable. The world’s tallest wooden building right now is the 10-story Forte building in Melbourne. But if Canada has their way, wooden buildings will be popping up left and right. And using wood doesn’t just make sense from a beetle-killed pine perspective. Green says in his design document:

Wood is typically the best principal material available for building structures with respect to embodied energy use, carbon emissions and water usage. Sustainable forest management and forest certification are a necessary precursor to the increased use of wood. The ability of the public to embrace an increase in wood buildings comes with a strong understanding of the overall impact on BC, Canada and the world’s forests. Deforestation is a critical contributor to anthropogenic climate change. The concept of using more wood will only be fully embraced when the harvesting of wood is understood to be truly sustainable and responsive to the environment.

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