Gallery: SOM’s Timber Towers Could Cut the Carbon Footprint of Tall Bui...


The internationally renowned design firm Skidmore, Owings and Merril (SOM) just published the findings of their “Timber Tower Research Project,” which proposes constructing skyscrapers with timber in order to reduce their overall carbon footprint. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency buildings account for 36 percent of total energy use, and tall structures in urban jungles built with metal and reinforced concrete have a particularly high carbon footprint. SOM’s design has the potential to slash the carbon footprint of these tall towers by up to 75%.

SOM applied their structural research system to an existing building designed by them in 1965. The Dewitt-Chestnut Apartment complex in Chicago is 395 ft tall and has 42 stories. The firm’s timber tower research revealed that reinforcing mass timber towers with concrete only at certain stress points, such as the joints, would result in a perfectly sound structure that requires zero steel, and much less concrete than a comparable building.

“SOM believes that the proposed system is technically feasible from the standpoint of structural engineering, architecture, interior layouts, and building services,” according to a recent statement. They add however that “Additional research and physical testing is necessary to verify the performance of the structural system.”

This system also improves cost and constructability and provisions have been made for fire protection. However, the firm already anticipates resistance to the design, and therefore urges urban planners, architects and others in the design industry to work with code officials and municipalities to pave the way for more efficient tower construction.



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  1. scottmelnick October 30, 2013 at 8:47 am

    If you read Bill Baker\\\’s entire paper the conclusions are a bit different. To start with, he acknowledges the sustainability issues ignore what happens after the useful lifespan of the building is completed. If you do a full life cycle assessment it turns out the carbon footprint is about the same as a conventional steel or concrete structure. There are also concerns about mold and fire (the argument is that heavy wood structures \\\”char\\\” rather than burn but the problem is determining how much strength is left in the material). In conversations, Bill has also noted there is a loss of usable space due to increased column size and the construction of tall wood structures is considerably higher than conventional structures. AISC\\\’s John Cross has written a substantial analysis of the study pinpointing problems. If anyone\\\’s interested in more info, let me know.

  2. english cheese man June 7, 2013 at 9:10 am

    This seems nice but wood is an insulating material, couldn’t the combination of wood and glass cause horrible over-heating issues? I suppose that would be good in Britain though…

  3. cudacurl June 6, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    Plantation timber will limit the effect on forests. But Plantation timbers grown today are geared towards faster growth rather than structural properties. In New Zealand the quality of the Radtiata Pine is widely accepted as being inferior today than in previous decades. LVL advances have been huge but is still dependent on the quality of timber.
    I hope all parties will get together and make this thing work.
    I do not understand how in a power outage the building becomes \”virtually uninhabitable\”. pjavsicas please explain your thinking behind this statement. All highrise buildings would be the same.

  4. archisan June 6, 2013 at 11:18 am

    Concerns about unmanaged forests are a truly legitimate concern. The potential to use buildings, which will be built at an exponential rate over the next few decades, as a carbon sink rather than as a net carbon producer has great potential for impact on the problem of carbon in the atmosphere. It is unlikely in an era of explosive population growth that we can conserve our way to balance in our environment, but we can design solutions.

  5. pjavsicas June 5, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Around the world, timber lands already are under assault and rapidly diminishing – with profound environmental consequences. How would a trend toward tall wood structures affect forest product consumption? There’s another downside to up. Buildings above, say, four stories require elevators, water pumps and other energy intensive facilities. In a power outage they are rendered virtually uninhabitable.

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