Economic Growth

This architect wants to build entire cities out of wood

The saucer-like facade of a sports arena against blue sky

Demand for wooden buildings is increasing, both for their beauty and reduced impact on the environment Image: Unsplash/Josh Shutler

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Engineering and Construction

  • Michael Green’s architecture firm designed the seven-story T3 building in Minneapolis, which will sequester about 3,200 tonnes of carbon for the life of the building.
  • In Sweden, Anders Berensson Architects has designed a small city of 31 cross-laminated towers on Stockholm's waterfront.

In bustling downtown Minneapolis, there’s a modern seven-story office building. Nothing remarkable about that, you might think – except that it’s made almost entirely of wood.

When it opened in 2016, it was the largest timber building in North America and the first to be built in the United States in more than 100 years.

T3, as the building is called, not only looks striking, but also took just two-and-a-half months to build – faster than conventional steel-framed or concrete buildings. And it’s helping the environment.

Have you read?

According to Michael Green, the architect whose firm designed it, T3 was built using 3,600 cubic metres of wood, which will sequester about 3,200 tonnes of carbon for the life of the building.

The T3 in Minneapolis
T3 is like a giant carbon sink in the sky. Image: MGA
Back to the future

A global movement is championing wood as a building material that not only looks beautiful, but also can help reduce our impact on the environment.

“I like to think about this as being a back-to-the-future sort of story…it’s not a new idea to build in wood,” says Michael.

“Everything we do is entirely made of timber and, ideally, some sort of timber innovation that we hope is informing a systemic change in the way we think about approaching the built environment.”

North Vancouver City Hall
North Vancouver City Hall by MGA Image: MGA
Reaching for the sky

Michael’s company uses innovative cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels, created by gluing layers of wood together.

“These panels allow us to build big buildings which are important for our cities, where we need to house a lot of people and employ a lot of people.”

Like reinforced steel and concrete, they’re strong enough to build skyscrapers and were used to build the world’s tallest timber building: the 85.4-metre-high Mjøstårnet in Norway (designed by Voll Arkitekter).

Michael Green Architecture explored the potential of engineered wood in 2015, by drawing up plans for a version of New York’s Empire State Building using the material.

MGA's next project
Michael Green Architects modelled a wooden version of the Empire State Building. Image: MGA

In Sweden, Anders Berensson Architects designed a small city of 31 cross-laminated towers on Stockholm's waterfront.

Michael says, “The material has been here for so long, but really for the last century we haven’t explored it as much as we are today and that’s because steel and concrete came about and those materials were good at solving some of the problems. They just weren’t good at their impact from an environmental point of view.”

High-rise carbon sinks

At the same time, the clock is ticking to save the planet from the impacts of climate change.

Globally, the construction industry accounts for nearly 40% of energy-related CO2 emissions.

And this is why wood is uniquely positioned to tackle the industry’s carbon footprint, according to Michael.

MGA at work
Michael Green checks out a construction site. Image: WWF/Netflix

“Unlike any other major material that we build with, wood sequesters carbon; it stores it. When a tree is taken and hopefully used in a building that will last for centuries, that piece of wood is storing that carbon dioxide in the material for the life of the building.

“That’s an incredibly critical part of the way we start to address climate change.”

If timber is sourced from sustainably managed plantations, instead of natural forest, it could also help reduce deforestation.

“CLT uses a volume of wood that becomes this big carbon sink, but it also uses a lower grade of wood, meaning we don't have to cut down such important trees and we can create a renewable solution in making these panels.”

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People and planet

As another benefit, being surrounded by nature – and natural materials – can be beneficial for our own wellbeing.

“I think there’s been this disconnect as we’ve moved and become increasingly urban around the world,” says Michael.

“We know that natural materials, whether it’s parks, trees or wood products, coming into an urban environment fundamentally make us much more healthy as a population and connect us back to this idea that we live in a natural world.”

Read more about the inspiring pioneers finding creative solutions to the climate crisis at https://wef.ch/pioneersforourplanet.

The series: Each week we’ll bring you a new video story about people striving to restore nature and fight climate change. In collaboration with WWF and the team behind the Netflix documentary Our Planet. Read more about it here.

The campaign: Want to raise your #VoiceForThePlanet? Life on Earth is under threat, but you can help. People around the world are raising their voice in support of urgent action. Add yours now at www.voicefortheplanet.org.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Economic GrowthHealth and Healthcare SystemsNature and BiodiversityUrban Transformation
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