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Sizing up the race to the skyline

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There is an excitement building in the U.K., Austria, Australia, B.C. and other regions. Myths are being dispelled and popular wisdom is being rewritten. The era of the wood skyscraper is dawning.
Werner Hofstatter
Werner Hofstatter

Guest Column | Werner Hofstatter

There is an excitement building in the U.K., Austria, Australia, B.C. and other regions. Myths are being dispelled and popular wisdom is being rewritten. The era of the wood skyscraper is dawning.

In Hackney, Dornbirn, Melbourne and other progressive centres, there are already eight, nine and 10-storey wood buildings. Many more are on drawing boards of designers around the world. These projects are part of an exciting international trend that must not be missed.

These wood buildings are not the traditional lumber and plywood constructs that are typical of single family houses, townhomes or even the six-storey residential structures that are now permitted by the B.C. Building Code.

Instead, they are constructed of various forms of massive laminated timber panels.

Pre-fabricated in modern facilities, from under-valued wood fibre, using sophisticated computer controlled equipment, these laminated panels are precisely engineered in various configurations up to 64 feet long, 10 feet wide and 12 inches thick.

They are shipped ready to install, with simple tools and minimal labour.

They provide a cost-effective, faster and highly aesthetic alternative. They also provide more than sufficient levels of structural, seismic, thermal and fire performance, at a fraction of the weight and environmental footprint.

The first modern tall wood building, Waugh Thistleton’s Murray Grove StadtHaus in London’s Hackney district, was completed in 2009. This 27-unit residential building consists of eight storeys of cross laminated timber (CLT) on a first storey of concrete. It was erected in eight weeks. CLT was developed in Austria about 15 years ago and consists of three, five or more perpendicular layers fastened together to make huge slabs for walls, floors and shafts.

Also in London’s Hackney district, Bridport House by Eurban stands at eight storeys. The 41-unit residential building also was built entirely of CLT. It was completed in only 12 weeks in November 2010.

The first commercial example is the eight-storey Life Cycle Tower just completed by Cree by Rhomberg in Dornbirn, Austria.

This office building is built with a concrete core, but is supported by glulam columns and glulam/concrete floor panels, connected with a series of steel sleeves and pegs.

It was erected in only eight days.

So far, the tallest wood structure is Lend/Lease Design's Forte Building in the Docklands district of Melbourne Australia. At 10-storeys tall, this residential building is the same height as Chicago’s Wainright Building - the world’s first official skyscraper. It is also made entirely of CLT.

The groups responsible for all four of these projects have been scouting B.C. as the place to build even higher. We have the knowledge, the fibre, the latest materials and, more importantly, the attitude to make things happen.

The Canadian Wood Council recently commissioned architect Michael Green, together with Equilibrium Consulting, to develop a conceptual design for even taller wood buildings. They developed a model for 12, 20 and even 30-storey wood skyscrapers.

Just last month, B.C.’s CEI Architecture Planning Interiors, together with the engineering group Read Jones Christoffersen, received an honourable mention in a design competition for a similar concept.

Their design for the Commercial Real Estate Association’s NAIOP Office Building of the Future included a 40-storey glulam column and beam design.

The world is in need of sustainable housing.

According to experts like Julian Allwood of Cambridge University, “The big news about cement is that it is the single biggest material source of carbon emissions in the world and the demand is going up”.

Clearly, continuing to satisfy the demand for high-density urban housing with traditional building technologies will be environmentally disastrous. B.C. is helping lead the way to a more sustainable future.

Werner Hofstatter is the Wood First advisor for the Canadian Wood Council. Direct comments or questions to editor@journalofcommerce.com.

by Journal Of Commerce

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