Cities and Urbanization

Timber skyscrapers: high-tech ‘tree’ houses could be the sustainable buildings of the future

A pile of firewood is seen at a firewood merchant in the Varkiza suburb, south of Athens January 22, 2013. With Greeks already struggling under wage and pension cuts imposed by the foreign lenders that bailed their country out, many have stopped using heating oil altogether, pushing consumption down 70 percent in the last three months of 2012 from a year earlier. Instead, Greeks are turning burning firewood - using anything from branches to old furniture - which has helped create a blanket of smog over the Greek capital while illegal logging multiplies across forests in the countryside. Picture taken January 22, 2013.   REUTERS/Yorgos Karahalis (GREECE - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS ENVIRONMENT SOCIETY) - GM1E9271PFC01

With concrete an unsustainable building material, timber can be grown and reduces carbon dioxide. Image: REUTERS/Yorgos Karahalis

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Cities and Urbanization

Recent innovations in engineered timber have laid the foundations for the world’s first wooden skyscrapers to appear within a decade, a feat that is not only achievable—according to the Centre for Natural Material Innovation—but one they hope will beckon in an era of sustainable wooden cities, helping reverse historic emissions from the construction industry.

The research team based at the Faculty of Architecture, is interdisciplinary, composed of architects, biochemists, chemists, mathematicians and engineers, who specialise in plant-based material, including cross-laminated timber, arguably the first major structural innovation since the advent of reinforced concrete, 150 years ago.

Principal Investigator Dr Michael Ramage, said “Until cross-laminated timber, there was simply no building material to challenge steel or reinforced concrete. To construct cities and indeed skyscrapers, we just had to accept the good and the bad of existing materials.

Image: University of Cambridge

“Concrete is about five times heavier than timber, which means more expense for foundations and transport; it’s resource-intensive, and contributes to tremendous carbon dioxide emissions. After water, concrete is the most consumed material by humanity. But now we have an alternative, and it’s plant-based.”

The team envisage trees supplanting concrete as the predominant building material for cities, with buildings sown like seeds and cities harvested as crops, a way of simultaneously addressing climate change and global housing shortages.

Dr Ramage explained: “In England alone, we need to build 340,000 new homes each year over the next 12 years to accommodate our population. Concrete is unsustainable. Timber, however, is the only building material we can grow, and that actually reduces carbon dioxide. Every tonne of timber expunges 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Doing the calculations, if all new English homes were constructed from timber, we could capture and offset the carbon footprints of around 850,000 people for 10 years.

“The sustainable forests of Europe take just 7 seconds to grow the volume of timber required for a 3 bedroom apartment, and 4 hours to grow a 300 metre supertall skyscraper. Canada’s sustainable forests alone yield enough timber to house a billion people in perpetuity, with forested trees replenishing faster than their eventual occupants.”

Various teams around the world are hoping to produce the tallest wooden skyscraper, however the team from Cambridge is confident they’ll be the first, having done holistic work on three proposals for timber skyscrapers in London, Chicago, and the Hague, all of which are set to be showcased to the public at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition 2019, freely open to the public from July 1–7.

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The team’s exhibit—Timber towers of tomorrow—will embody their vision, the stand itself modelled after a typical apartment nested within their proposed Oakwood Timber Tower at the Barbican Tower, where visitors can experience life in a treehouse while talking with the team, viewing architectural models of timber towers, learning about the fire performance properties of engineered timber, and hearing about the genetic, cellular, and macroscale innovations which have led to ply in the sky designs becoming a reality.

Beyond tackling climate change and promoting sustainability, the team are eager to outline the branching benefits society stands to gain by embracing timber architecture: the psychological well-being that comes from being surrounded by wood as compared with concrete, as well as the return to an ancient building material, that’s intimate as it is natural.

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Cities and UrbanizationClimate Change
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