(Photo by BuildPix/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)
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Are timber skyscrapers the future?

Given the challenges that UK governments will face over the next decade, there’s every reason for us to embrace the timber age

There are few more evocative images of modernity than the glittering skyscrapers of Tokyo. It’s easy to forget that Japan’s cities used to consist largely of timber structures up until the mid-twentieth century. It was only after the nightmarish final months of the Second World War, when American B-29 bombers reduced these wooden metropolises to smouldering ash, that Japan embraced concrete, glass and steel.

Mass timber is still in its utopian phase

But luckily Japanese timber expertise did not vanish entirely, for it now appears wood is the future again. Late last year Sumitomo Forestry, a 300-year-old company, announced it was partnering with Kyoto University to design a surprising product: wooden satellites. This innovation aims to stop the dangerous build-up of space junk orbiting the Earth. The ultimate goal of the research, however, is back on terra firma, where Sumitomo hopes to design “ultra-strong, weather resistant wooden buildings”. It has already announced its ambitions to build a skyscraper more than 1,000 feet tall, constructed from 90 per cent wood, by 2041.

Norway’s Mjøstårnet: at 85.4 m tall, it is officially the world’s tallest timber building (Photo credit: Peter Fiskerstrand via Wikimedia Commons)

Could timber really be a major building material in the dense, vertical cities of the future? In fact, this possibility is well on the way to being realised. In recent years, architects and planners around the world have hailed the coming age of “mass timber”. This term refers to prefabricated wooden building components, such as cross-laminated timber, which can replace concrete and steel in large-scale construction.

Granted, nothing quite on the scale of Sumitomo’s thousand-foot skyscraper has yet been achieved, but new records are being set every few years. The tallest building to date is the Mjøstårnet in Norway, completed in 2018: an 18-storey tower containing apartments, offices and a hotel, and made almost entirely out of wood and glue. In terms of quantity of material used, the largest mass timber construction is actually the Dalston Works apartment complex in London, designed by architecture firm Waugh Thistleton. The UK was an early adopter of the technique, with some 500 buildings completed since 2004.

Dalston Works, designed by Waugh Thistleton Architects

And there’s lots more mass timber in the pipeline. A 322-foot residential tower is being planned for Berlin, while in Dublin a timber extension atop a nineteenth-century mill will come in at around 150 feet. That’s to say nothing of the more speculative proposals, such as plans commissioned by Stockholm’s Centre Party for an entire district of wooden skyscrapers.

Mass timber is still in its utopian phase, with architects competing to produce eye-catching designs and generate enthusiasm for the material. But the potential benefits of this revolution are very real, especially as governments around the world struggle to reconcile ambitious post-Covid regeneration projects with promises to cut carbon emissions.

The great virtue of mass timber is that it actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere

The construction industry is responsible for more than 10 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, a large proportion of which comes from the production of cement and steel. This is especially troubling given that, according to UN projections, the world’s population will continue to grow and become more urbanised in the coming decades. There will need to be many more houses – a problem which is already acute here in the UK.

The great virtue of mass timber is that, if sustainably sourced, it actually removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The CO2 captured by trees does not return to the atmosphere through burning or decomposition, but is locked into the building for its lifespan. And timber buildings can have a very long lifespan: in Japan, wooden pagodas have stood for more than a millennium in wet, earthquake-prone conditions.

Timber is also practical, versatile and neighbourly, and developers are beginning to view it favourably in terms of cost. Erecting a timber building is much quieter and faster than the alternatives, involving less dust and toxic by-product. If it does not fit with the existing style of a neighbourhood, it can be covered in a brick façade, as was done at the Dalston Works building in London. The lightness of wood allows it to be used on brownfield sites where concrete and steel cannot, or as a vertical extension of an existing building.

Adelaide Wharf is a sustainable development with a timber frame superstructure and 2008 RIBA award-winning design in Hackney, London. (Photo by BuildPix/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images)

But maybe the most exciting opportunity offered by mass timber is for a new aesthetic departure. Britain’s post-war Brutalist buildings are being pulled down from London to Teeside, and though few people may mourn them on visual grounds, they do point to something that is missing from our built environment. It’s been a long time since the UK has had a new vernacular that tries to embody any sort of collective ambition or communal spirit. These isles are coming to be defined by mediocre new-build apartments and the soulless glass boxes that line our commercial districts.

The biggest hurdle to mass timber comes from anxieties over fire risk

Wood, the most ancient of all building materials, is a good starting point for a twenty-first century aesthetic. It will allow architecture to recuperate some of the qualities rightly cherished by traditional wood-building cultures such as the Japanese: warmth, repose, textural subtlety, and a natural presence in the built environment. As ideologues of mass timber like to point out, people seem to have a deep and spontaneous appreciation for wood: they instinctively run their hands over its surface, admire its grain and relish its scent.

Understandably, the biggest hurdle to mass timber comes from anxieties over fire risk. But while there is still debate over this issue, proponents argue that mass timber actually holds ups better than steel in a fire. In the UK, architects have strongly protested timber materials being included in a post-Grenfell ban on combustible cladding for taller buildings. And it’s worth remembering the question here is not whether wood as such is safe, but at what height – plenty of wooden buildings are already kosher.

At any rate, many governments are coming to view the fire risk as manageable, especially given their increasingly stringent carbon reduction goals. Property investors looking to insure themselves against future environmental regulations will likely follow suit. The United States recently altered its building code to allow taller timber constructions, and France’s new sustainability law demands that after 2022 public buildings must be constructed from at least 50 per cent timber or other natural materials.

What better way for Westminster to defend the Union than by placing Scottish timber at the heart of a national rebuilding effort?

Given the challenges UK governments will face over the next decade – rebalancing the economy, promoting green industry and technology, building more houses – there’s every reason for us to embrace the timber age. It’s true that, given the economics of land use on a crowded island, the UK will always have to look overseas for wood (our net imports are second only to China’s). But we could also have a much bigger domestic timber industry, even as the government aims to expand the nation’s woodland for carbon capture. Harvesting timber can be a part of sustainable forest management, and can help pay for it as well.

There might even be an unexpected political benefit in all this. An expanded forestry sector would naturally be concentrated in Scotland, whose higher proportion of softwood trees makes it by far the best place to produce mass timber. The UK’s first mass timber manufacturing plant will likely be in South Lanarkshire. With independence still an open question north of the border, what better way for Westminster to defend the Union than by placing Scottish timber at the heart of a national rebuilding effort?

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