Last week at a meeting hosted by the White House, the USDA announced plans to host a competition encouraging architects, engineers, and builders to start designing and building high rises out of a simple and unexpected building material — wood. With so many modern buildings made of concrete and steel, it may seem like a strange choice, but the truth is that new technologies are already producing incredibly strong, lightweight, and flame-resistant timber that could drastically reduce building time and carbon emissions compared to conventional building materials.
Image © eVolo
The USDA is investing $1 million in the competition, and has even collaborated with a nonprofit partner for offer another million in training, technical support, and resources to help builders learn more about these new high-tech wood products. The agency estimates that a single 3-5 story wood building could offset the carbon emissions of 550 cars on the road for a year, and energy-efficient designs could further reduce the emissions produced by power spent on heating and cooling.
Wooden skyscrapers are already being developed around the world — in 2009, a nine-story apartment building in London claimed the title of the world’s tallest all-timber building. It used prefabricated, cross-laminated wood panels created by stacking dozens of natural wood panels in alternating directions, pressed into a single beam. The treatment not only leaves the wood incredibly strong, but it also creates beams that are more stable than steel in case of fire; while the panels will smolder and eventually burn, an insulating layer of char ensures they’ll stay stable far longer than metal.
An even taller wooden highrise has been proposed in Sweden, one that will reach a whopping 34 stories. This one would use a concrete core for stability, although most of the building would be made of timber. This hybrid approach to building could potentially lead to stable buildings well over 40 stories.
Unfortunately, these sustainable buildings may not be a reality right away. For one thing, many cities still have building codes on the books forbidding wooden construction over a certain height, not taking into account the stability and safety of new construction methods and materials. Lobbyists against sustainable building initiatives have made it difficult for similar projects to get off the ground. And, at the moment, there are no US manufacturers of this type of super-strong timber, so it would have to be imported from Europe. Hopefully, with continuing government investment, these are all obstacles that architects and developers can overcome.
Lead image © C.F. Moller