The Designers of the World's Tallest Buildings Aim to Build Wood Towers

Just when you had given up on trees, wooden buildings are back! Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the firm behind the Sears (aka Willis) Tower, One World Trade Center, and many other extremely tall buildings wants to make a 42-story skyscraper out of wood.

This doesn't mean a return to Ye Olde Architect's medieval building techniques, but rather a marriage of new technology and renewable materials that's a gagillion times better for the planet than steel. It could mean a radical overhaul for the architecture industry. "This is the first new way to build in a hundred years," says Michael Green, who gave a TED talk about wooden skyscrapers last year. "It’s going to take a little time to work through the best way of doing it," he tells the New York Times.

The environmental benefits are clear. Manufacturing steel and concrete sucks up a lot of energy and releases a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Wood not only takes less energy to process, it also sequesters carbon. And it saves time: Using wood allows buildings to be built incredibly fast because the sections can be prefabricated in a factory and shipped to the site for quick assembly. Learning how to build stronger wood buildings could also aid construction in developing countries with limited resources. Wood could be a game-changer.

And I know what you're about to say, but don't worry: it's not going to burn down. Engineers claim that these "mass timber" structures can meet the same fire standards as a traditional building.

The Designers of the World's Tallest Buildings Aim to Build Wood Towers

Architects are already heralding the wooden renaissance. Green is working on a six-story wood tower (above) in British Columbia. Earlier this year, Swedish firm C.F. Møller announced its plans to build a 34-foot residential tower in Stockholm (top image). And the architects behind a concept called Big Wood (so clever, guys!) announced their intentions to bring a wood skyscraper to Chicago.

The Designers of the World's Tallest Buildings Aim to Build Wood Towers

One of the tallest wooden towers currently in existence is Murray Grove, a nine story residential building in London designed by Waugh Thistleton. This structure uses a method called Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) where sheets of wood—in this case spruce—are layered and laminated on top of each other. The strength actually comes from alternating the direction of the wood grain for each layer. These wooden sheets can be cut precisely in the factory and shipped to the construction site.

The Designers of the World's Tallest Buildings Aim to Build Wood Towers

SOM's plan (which you can download in this PDF) is a little different. They want to use a different material for the columns called glued laminated timber, or glulam, and CLT for the floors and walls. They'll also use a little concrete in the form of beams to add additional support. For their study, SOM actually used an existing building their architects designed in 1966, the Dewitt-Chestnut apartments (now the Plaza on Dewitt) in Chicago, reimagining it with the new wood construction. [New York Times via ArchDaily]