It wasn't long ago that I was working with clients determined to use light-gauge steel in lieu of wood studs for their residential projects. Their rationale was that steel was more environmentally friendly, because the material didn't require cutting down trees for its manufacture.
A decade or so later, steel now has a bad name for its high embodied energy and carbon effect. Wood, on the other hand, is the new favored building material, since it stores carbon throughout its life—even after a tree is felled (at least until the material decays or is burned).
Architects such as Waugh Thistleton and Michael Green (Green was featured in the March issue of ARCHITECT) have advocated the construction of high-rise buildings made of wood. Waugh Thistleton's nine-story Murray Grove building in London is currently the tallest residential building made of timber—constructed of innovative Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) panels.
Recently, Michael Green announced that construction will soon begin on his Wood Innovation and Design Center, a building sponsored by the local Prince George, B.C., government to feature innovative uses of wood. When it is completed in June 2014, Green's building will be six stories and 27.5 meters in height—making it the tallest wood building in North America.
Not one for humility, the architect told The Globe and Mail that the project "is one of the most important wood buildings in North American history." Green views this structure as making strides towards supertall wooden buildings up to 30 stories. "For the last century there has been no reason to challenge steel and concrete as the essential structural materials of large buildings," he said. "Climate change now demands that we do."
Presumably, Green's ambitious structure—and the others that will likely follow—will utilize wood that is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or other robust forest-management program. Otherwise, a rapid increase in the use of unsustainably managed wood could lead to rapid deforestation and forest ecosystem degradation—outcomes that would clearly undermine the ecological benefits of using wood. Moreover, municipalities outside of London and Prince George will need to be convinced about the fire-resistance of such structures.
Once such challenges are successfully addressed, wood may one day return to its former place as the favored material in non-commercial construction.
Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.