Tall Wood: Mass Timber Movement Grows In NYC

475 West 18th_Great Room_SHoP Architects_EMBARGO_Sept. 17_10am ETRendering courtesy of SHoP

In recent years, a quiet revolution has been underway: the revolution of mass timber. Several visionary architectural firms and developers are exploring “tall wood” as a viable alternative building material to steel and concrete.

While a number of mass timber projects have been completed around the world (none of which have been eaten by termites), America’s new wooden warriors have been greeted with quite a bit of skepticism here in the U.S. Most people’s first thought is probably the risk of fire; after all, wood has been known to burn. Earthquakes are also a common concern.

The fact is, with recent advances in wood technology, research has shown that mass timber can be every bit as dependable as steel. Mass timber projects use young trees harvested from forests that have been certified sustainable. The manufacturing process and building processes are cheaper and leave a much fainter carbon footprint. Wood is also aesthetically pleasing and supremely renewable. According to “Sustainable Forestry in North America“, U.S. tree cultivation has outstripped the rate at which trees are harvested for the last 50 years.

SHoP, the world famous design firm based in Lower Manhattan, has been at the forefront of visionary design since 1996. Their newest creation in wood, the result of a collaboration with Atelier TenArup, and Icor Consulting Engineers recently won the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Tall Wood Building Prize Competition along with Portland-based design firm LEVER, who’s design, Framework, is also pictured here. Each project will receive $1.5 m in research and development funding.

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475 W. 18th Street, rendering courtesy of SHoP

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Framework, rendering courtesy of LEVER Architecture

SHoP’s design incorporates green technology and design elements to create a residential dwelling that is projected to consume 50% less energy than is mandated by the energy code. The building, which will be the tallest mass timber structure in New York City and will overlook the Highline, is also in line for Platinum LEED certification, provided the project actually goes through. U.S. building codes have been notoriously unkind to mass timber projects, and in most states, wooden construction is still limited to a maximum of 4 stories. SHoP’s proposed structure would rise to 10 stories.

That may seem high for a wooden structure, but to hear Canadian mass timber champion Michael Green tell it, that’s just the tip of the wooden iceberg. Green has proposed structures in Vancouver, B.C .and Paris, France, that would rise to 30 and 35 stories, respectively. The Paris complex, named Baobab after the towering tree, is designed with a focus on community building and would contain a student hotel, a community market, and would make extensive use of urban agriculture.

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Baobab, rendering courtesy of Michael Green Architecture

In Green’s view, wood is actually an advanced technological material, which just happens to be provided by Mother Nature. Whether you agree with this holistic view of wood or not, Green does make a valid point. Wood is strong and plentiful. And unlike steel or concrete production, an increase in the cultivation of trees would actually help the environment. Wood is lighter and more malleable than concrete or steel, and it naturally sequesters carbon, while steel and concrete production actually release carbon into the atmosphere. According to Green, steel and concrete production and the building practices associated with these common materials account for approximately 8% of greenhouse gas emissions.

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The proposed “Tallwood” Tower, rendering courtesy of Michael Green Architecture

In some ways, the resurgence of wood as a prime building material would seem inevitable. Mass timber and cross laminated timber have been in widespread use in Europe since the 1970’s. The green revolution that has been slowly sweeping across the country for decades, has for many brought with it a desire for a return to simplicity and an aversion to the cold nature of many standard building materials. For the homeowner or future homeowner who has already made sustainable living a priority, the draw of a home that marries the futuristic and state-of-the-art with the earthiness, warmth, and renewable nature of wood is undeniable. While many investors have approached these wooden castles cautiously, it is likely that wood will find its niche with green businesses and forward-thinking potential homeowners.

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