Tracey Lindeman is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa where she writes about technology, transportation and business.
Forest-rich Norway is a leader in building with lower-carbon structural wood. But it still lacks factories that can turn trees into building parts.
The Norwegian town of Brumunddal sits on the edge of the Brumunda River, just 85 miles north of Oslo and a million miles away from the hustle and bustle of a big city. TripAdvisor users have recommended just two things to do in Brumunddal: See a church built in 1250, and go dog-sledding in the snow.
As a town of fewer than 10,000, Brumunddal’s biggest claim to fame for years was that it was home to the woman who created Grandiosa frozen pizzas, a time-honored Norwegian snack. But today, it is known for something even more grandiose: The world’s tallest timber structure.
Designed by Voll Arkitekter and measuring 280 feet tall, the 18-story mixed-use building, called Mjøstårnet, is built entirely out of engineered wood (or mass timber), and was awarded its superlative status in early 2019. Whether a tiny town truly needed such an outsize building is beside the point. Mjøstårnet is a statement to the world that timber construction has arrived, and Norway is ready to build.
There’s just one thing: The country has yet to seize the means of its own timber production.
“Norway is a banana republic when it comes to this,” Jørgen Tycho, an architect with the firm Oslotre who specializes in timber, said on the phone from Oslo. “We have a lot of forests; 40 percent of Norway is covered. There have never ever been as many trees in our country as right now. But we don’t have the industry to [process them], so what we do is cut down the trees, the raw materials, and ship them to Europe.”
The wood is then manufactured into glulam and cross-laminated timber (CLT)—usually in Austria and Germany—and shipped back to Norway, which reimports it.
From Viking ships to 800-year-old wooden cathedrals still in use today, Norway has a long tradition of building with wood. Now there is a growing interest in domesticating the timber supply chain, for both environmental and economic reasons. (The country is trying to wean itself off oil, after all.)
The opportunity is there. Successful postwar reforestation has produced many mature spruce and pine trees that are ready to be cut down and transformed into types of engineered wood. Those materials are not only less carbon-intensive than concrete and steel to produce, but they can also store excess carbon—although just how much has not yet been settled. Tycho says one cubic meter of spruce can store 0.8 tons of carbon, which is consistent with other estimates. “That means it’s possible to make buildings with a negative carbon footprint. We can store more carbon than they used in the production of the building,” he said.
Norway is already a pioneer in zero- and positive-energy buildings. Timber holds a lot of new potential in this field, but has so far moved forward in fits and starts. Tycho himself tried to domesticate CLT production by opening a factory back in 2010, but he was too early for the trend. It shut down five years later.
Today, a handful of companies are trying again. Longstanding Norwegian timber-supply company Splitkon, which previously relied on Swedish and Austrian suppliers for its CLT, opened its own domestic production facility in early 2019.
Tycho says the renewed interest in timber began in 2016, when CLT production reached a critical mass in Europe and construction companies could finally price timber alongside other materials when calculating offers. Since then, his firm’s annual timber projects have more than doubled.
Now newcomers such as Tewo are lining up for a slice of the pie. That company uses 3D modeling to engineer prefab CLT panels that can snap together to build a house frame in considerably less time than with conventional materials.
Tewo just opened its first domestic assembly facility and plans to open a Nowegian CLT factory in the spring of 2020. Tewo chief marketing officer Håkon S. Rognlien said the choice for domestic production was obvious: “The question is almost, ‘Why haven’t we done this already?’ We have the competence, we have the capital, we have all the things we need. Maybe we don’t have the same traditions for doing the manufacturing in Norway, but now we’re trying to [do the whole supply chain] within the country.”
Timber towers are catching on elsewhere, too. In 2017, the University of British Columbia opened a timber-dominant student residence aptly titled Tallwood House. The Google-related Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto is pitching a veritable timber neighborhood, and similarly in Sweden, an architecture firm has pitched a 31-skyscraper CLT “city.”
According to the International Energy Agency, the global building construction industry and the buildings it produces are responsible for 40 percent of global carbon emissions and use 36 percent of the world’s energy. Timber construction is less resource-intensive to build and operate, and it may even have some health benefits, too. David Fell, a global leader in the science of wood construction, has found that wood construction makes inhabitants less stressed.
The inside of Valle Wood is, in fact, strangely serene.
The new seven-story office building in Oslo is, from frame to cladding, made mainly of timber. A quick tour during Oslo Innovation Week in September showed that the stairs, floors, beams, columns, interior walls, and even elevator shafts, are wood. It’s incredibly quiet; no shoes click against tile, no echoes reverberate in the halls.
Anders Steinsvik Nygård, a structural engineer with firm Ny Struktur who worked on Valle Wood along with Tycho’s Oslotre, says a thin layer of concrete was sandwiched between the structural and finished floors to help add weight and compressive strength to the building, as well as to improve soundproofing and reduce vibration. The external walls, meanwhile, are aluminum-clad with a wood façade.
Nygård says timber holds a lot of potential for tall buildings: “You won’t build the Burj Khalifa in timber, but you can you can build quite tall.”
Valle Wood is one of several recently completed timber structures in Norway. Others include cottages, kindergartens, nursing homes, libraries, and student residences. But for the trend to make a bigger impact in city centers, tendering processes and building codes need to be changed.
Most old cities have burned down at some point—a scar that is hard for leaders to forget. Timber seems flammable, no? However, everyone interviewed for this story explained that while it is possible for even these modern CLT buildings to catch fire, wood normally burns more slowly and predictably than buildings made of other materials. That assertion is backed up by U.S. Forest Service fire tests of a two-story, full-scale CLT apartment mockup done in 2017. (The model building code in the United States does not currently allow tall timber buildings, but it will, up to 270 feet, as of 2021.)
For Norwegians, any risks are worth the environmental and economic rewards.
“We know we can’t live from petrol much longer,” said Tycho, referring to oil reserves that made the country one of the richest in the world. “Now we’re looking back: ‘Okay, what industry do we have?’ We have the forest industry. It’s basically just one step back to what we were supposed to do before we found the oil.”