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The Growth of Wooden Giants: Are Timber Skyscrapers the Future of Cities?

Wooden-made skyscrapers are no big news to Canadian cities such as Vancouver in British Columbia. However, other countries are now starting to see this resource as a great and sustainable solution for the construction of residential and office buildings.

Brock Commons tower vancouver timber wood skyscrapers

The Brock Commons tower is an example of the vast possibilities of wood – it is cheaper, faster and the environmental impact is considerably lower when compared to steel and concrete structures. Its construction offset an estimated 2,432 metric tonnes of carbon.

With the success case of this 18-storey tower built in Vancouver, which was once the world’s tallest timber building, many architects, foresters and engineers want the province’s biggest city to grow another cluster of wooden giants.

Hence, the provincial government doubled the height limit for wood-frame buildings to 12 storeys as the Brock Common tower was an exception allowed at the time. Since the province has now changed its building codes, the Canadian government is expected to establish it nationwide.

vancouver canada wooden skyscrapers timber buildings

However, with the ambitious planification of the 40-storey wooden tower, Vancouver is trying to push those limits established by the government. It would be the tallest wooden building in the world with over 200 homes, an outdoor garden per every three floors and even a premium office space and retail.

“[British Columbia’s] actions have created a ripple effect around the world,” said Michael Green, a Vancouver-based architect and vocal proponent of timber buildings. “The United States has changed its code effectively because of Canada. China is changing its code effectively because of Canada.”

Another reason that makes Canadian officials believe that the country could take the lead in this matter is the vast amount of wood resource they possess. Canada has around 350 million hectares of forest with the majority concentrated in British Columbia. Even though it is often mistaken with the controversial practice of logging old-growth forests, Canada’s design goals are extremely environmentally conscious with over half of the 3.2 million hectares of British Columbia’s forests as protected lands.

Despite popular misconceptions of wood as fire-prone and unstable, it can be a robust and innovative building material. Wooden skyscrapers are made of cross-laminated timber (CLT), in which perpendicular strips of wood are glued together to form sturdy beams. The Economist explains the construction process:

From Canada to the World

In what is considered to be the riskiest city when it comes to earthquakes, Japan’s Sumitomo Group expects to use CLT to build a wooden skyscraper with 70 floors in Tokyo by 2024.

With the usage efficiency and lightness of the resource itself, engineered wood carries much less of an environmental footprint than concrete, which produces up to 8% of the world’s emissions. And with the often wood-decorated interiors, this resource is considered to be one of the best to enhance the sense of warmth and joy in visitors.

wood interiors brock commons timber skyscrapers

Although most constructions that have been made are focused on residential buildings, there are many projects for mid-to-low rise structures in commercial segment, such as commercial warehouses that currently use concrete and steel and produce large amounts of waste.

But Is it Really Sustainable?

Without proper forestry management the usage of wood might not be as beneficial as it sounds. With years of intense wildfire and insect blight constraining the timber supplies, foresters ask for regulatory exceptions to harvesting limits.

“The truth is, there is no such thing as sustainable building. Everything we do in building includes taking a cost out of something,” said Green. Even though sustainable forestry management may increase costs for both companies and taxpayers, British Columbia residents consider these costs to be worth paying.