Since the beginning of times humans have built from wood and it was the first building material used to build homes, temples and churches. But through history we have seen other building materials, such as stone, bricks and concrete emerge as technological innovations took place.
During the past years we have seen high-rise wooden buildings become fashionable when technologies have developed and enabled these buildings to be constructed safely and quickly. In a way we could say that we are returning to our roots in building material history cycle.
Today many new tall wooden building are being built around world braking different records. For example the 14 floor wooden apartment building named “Tree” in Trondheim, Norway is a proof of ingenuity, innovation and courage to take on such a challenge. The Canadian timber-building architect Michael Green's proposed 30 storey plus Baobab project in Paris would push the limits even further. On another scale has been the Structural Award winner, the Canary Wharf Crossrail building in London, a station concourse canopy consisting of a 300m-long glulam grid shell.
But so far the majority of high buildings constructed from wood and wooden elements are more one off projects, that get a lot of press coverage and attention, but they are not yet mainstream. These projects are often considered one off expensive fashion statements. But we shouldn't define our sector only through special cases and flagship projects. Up until now, we enjoyed playing the eccentric role - but we are capable of so much more. We need to ask ourselves how could tall wooden buildings become more mainstream and thus truly increase consumption off wood?
On the one hand in many countries we still have legislative and regulatory obstacles, like fire regulations, that prohibit tall wooden buildings. With good examples, like the “Tree” in Trondheim, the forest industry must push for a change of old and outdated building regulations.
Solid wood products, such as CLT and glulam, are natural, renewable and less energy intensive to produce and apply than alternatives. When compared to other building materials, such as concrete or steel, solid wood's environmental credentials are far superior. Not only is it renewable, but it involves very little waste during production and is extremely carbon efficient to transport.
Furthermore, design improvements must happen in order to reduce the energy use of new buildings. This will lead to the substitution of concrete and bricks by wood in new construction, and in renovation projects to improve roofs, façades and air tightness.
Constructing high buildings from wood is fashionable at the moment and as we know throughout history fashions come and go. It is imperative that the timber industry is able to take advantage of this fashion period and is able to develop and introduce construction technics and products that will be adopted as building industry standards and considered best practice. This will secure in the long run the increased demand of wood high-rise buildings.
On the other hand the public perception regarding the capabilities of wood as a building material for tall buildings must improve. We, in the forest industry, believe in the capabilities of our products but the “man in the street” does not have the same perception. Buildings in fire and rotten wood come in mind too often to the people and this needs to change. In time, as we gain more market share for timber and critics are proven wrong, wood will be considered at least as an equal, if not a better building material as concrete or steel.
In many of these new wooden building projects we have been emphasizing wood being able to do as good a job as competing materials or even a better job. But the fact is that in certain applications steel and concrete are better than wood. Therefore, the attention and focus should also be on development of “hybrid buildings” where wood is used alongside and in conjunction with steel and concrete. Each material is chosen for the application where best suited. Cooperation between the forest industry, steel and concrete industries in developing new building techniques is necessary. This is way wood will become a mainstream building material alongside steel and concrete in high buildings. Through an understanding of clients’ commercial objectives, together with set aesthetic and sustainability requirements, optimized hybrid solutions must be developed to meet performance and financial parameters.
The European building industry is only starting to recover from very difficult times since the financial crisis and the expected growth during the coming years is going to be slow and fragile. Therefore, competition is going to be tough and margins low across the supply chain and industry. Even though wood has all the environmental credentials and is fashionable, building with wood must be economically sound. Standardization of the products will enable the timber industry to increase its penetration in the high rise building market.
To achieve high-volume timber utilization, the sector must make every effort to bring planning costs to the level of steel or concrete, or in other words to lower them considerably. In the future, we have to emphasize technical advantages, product characteristics, standardization, the precise pre-fabrication, obviously the fact that wood is the only renewable building material and most importantly the profitability. The life cycle assessment of different building materials must also be brought up to promote wood.
With the growth of usage of wood in the high rise buildings we could expect that will help and improve the image of wood as a building material in general. This should, as a consequence, positively impact demand of wood in other buildings as well.
In Europe, there are many projects of building from wood in different countries. Information sharing of all this projects has lagged behind. 2 years ago the European Organization of Sawmill Industry and the European Timber Trade Federation jointly funded and developed a website called “Wood Toolbox” to make information available for professionals about wooden building projects across Europe. On the website information, pictures, architects names, technics used, etc. was up-loaded on hundreds of successful projects from across Europe and made available for professional to use. It was recently decided by the Board of directors of the European Organization of Sawmill Industry and the Board of the European Timber Trade Federation that the website would be made open and available to the public. This is expected to happen in 2016. Positive information must be shared with everybody and this will help us to promote wood as a future building material.
The outlook and possibilities to develop building from wood in Europe and across the world looks good but we still have a lot of work ahead of us.