Vancouver-based architect Michael Green is trying to convince the world to construct tall wood buildings.

After ruinous fires that laid waste to wide swaths of the urban landscape, cities more than a century ago were eager for technology to come to the rescue, with new building materials and methods.

And of course history did not disappoint. The Monadnock building in Chicago (Burnham & Root, 1891) had its record-setting load-bearing masonry wall and iron frame; the staircases sported aluminum. It was off to the races from there, with curtain-walled towers of glass and concrete and steel.

Wood, meanwhile, was relegated to furniture – some of it quite glorious – and interior design. Building materials sourced from trees were fine for an arts-and-crafts bungalow, but hard (no pun intended) to take seriously as the central component of major buildings.

So what exactly is Vancouver-based architect Michael Green thinking when he proposes using wood to erect urban skyscrapers and multifamily structures of up to 30 stories? “Earth grows our food,” he says in his 2013 TED Talk. “We should move toward an ethic that the earth should grow our homes.”

For one thing, Green argues, using wood in a more systematic way would be good for sustainability. Buildings account for nearly 50 percent of all global greenhouse gas emissions. In the construction process, 3 percent of the world’s energy is used for making steel, and 5 percent for concrete.

Wood grows by the power of the sun, and harvesting wood through sustainable forestry practices – enough wood for a 20-story building is grown every 13 minutes, he says – would also be a form of sequestration of carbon, which is otherwise released when a tree falls and decomposes. And there are a lot more dead trees around, not coincidentally because of climate change impacts. The pine beetle, flourishing due to warmer temperatures, has already devastated millions of acres in the Intermountain West.

Rather than building with two-by-fours, modern-day wood construction would be accomplished using state-of-the-art methods based on super-compressed mass timber panels – essentially giant, sturdy Lego-like assembly. The compression also contributes to protecting against fire, which Green concedes is the first question he gets when he talks about building with wood. These denser wood building blocks are actually difficult to burn – like a big fat tree stump in a fireplace – and would of course exist within the context of 21st-century fire suppression systems, including sprinklers.

The vast majority of city building codes, largely based on the tragedies of a century ago, limit the height of wood buildings, often to a mere four stories.

Perhaps Green’s most convincing argument is the fact that some three billion people will be moving into cities in the coming decades, chronicled in Solly Angel’s book Planet of Cities among others, and they are going to need housing. Accommodating all those mostly poor people requires more sustainable construction, he says.

Sweden has already approved a 30-story wood tower, and Vancouver is reviewing Green’s proposal for a structure nearly as high. His white paper, "The Case for Tall Wood Buildings," is available at the Wood Coalition website.

Green continues to believe it might be wood’s big moment. Deep skepticism greeted the Monadnock and the Eiffel Tower, he notes, but soon those then-new construction materials and methods were fully accepted. What it took was a turning point of imagination. “The engineering,” he says, “is the easy part.”

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    The Cities Americans Want to Flee, and Where They Want to Go

    An Apartment List report reveals the cities apartment-hunters are targeting for their next move—and shows that tales of a California exodus may be overstated.

  2. photo: a pair of homes in Pittsburgh
    Equity

    The House Flippers of Pittsburgh Try a New Tactic

    As the city’s real estate market heats up, neighborhood groups say that cash investors use building code violations to encourage homeowners to sell.  

  3. Life

    Can Toyota Turn Its Utopian Ideal Into a 'Real City'?

    The automaker-turned-mobility-company announced last week it wants to build a living, breathing urban laboratory from the ground up in Japan.

  4. a sign advertising public parking next to a large building
    Equity

    U.S. Mayors Say Infrastructure Is a Priority. But What Kind?

    The Menino Survey of Mayors identifies priorities like infrastructure, traffic safety, and climate change. But many mayors aren’t eager to challenge the status quo.

  5. photo: San Diego's Trolley
    Transportation

    Out of Darkness, Light Rail!

    In an era of austere federal funding for urban public transportation, light rail seemed to make sense. Did the little trains of the 1980s pull their own weight?

×