When Skidmore, Owings & Merrill built the Dewitt-Chestnut Apartments in Chicago in 1965, the 42-story building was by-the-books as far as materials went, another stately concrete-and-steel structure to add to the skyline. Nearly 50 years later, a SOM research project is suggesting a new way to create buildings that reach for the sky, utilizing timber reinforced with concrete. Last year, the Timber Tower Research Project showed that a 40-story, wood-frame skyscraper, built to mimic Dewitt-Chestnut, is not only physically possible, but would result in a 60 to 75 percent smaller carbon footprint.
What once sounded like a green construction dream is now a growing trend, being built board by board in high-rises springing up across North America, Europe, and Australia. According to Oscar Faoro, Project Manager of the U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition, a new $2 million, government-sponsored contest to encourage more wood-based, multi-story construction, the trend evolved in Europe and is now having a 'moment.' The Stadthaus, a nine-story building in London built in 2008 with cross-laminated timber, and the cutting-edge LCT 1 in Austria, catalyzed forestry councils and builders to investigate opportunities to experiment with these sustainable wooden structures. New embedded connectors that allow for stronger support between steel and wood and concrete and wood are pushing the industry forward, and skyward: architect Michael Green, who just finished the Wood Innovation and Design Centre, is eyeing a 30-story wood building ("The engineering," he's said, "is the easy part").
"There's a demand in the marketplace for something different," Faoro says. "What really will make this work is prefab construction. Moving finished components to the site will results in less transportation and quicker construction."
Dwell takes a look at some of the more influential examples of this trend to examine how engineers are experimenting with one of mankind's most ancient building materials.