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Opinion:

Structural Rethinking

Can wood really be a viable structural building material for mid- to high-rises?

By Michael Green
May 2012
The creators of the FFTT system for tall wood buildings argue that wood is cost-competitive with steel and concrete for mid- to high-rise structures. 1 Second lift outer core walls and floors 2 Brace outer core 3 Install core floors 4 Will require lift on floor 6 to access connections1 Second lift outer walls 2 Brace walls 3 Repeat steps 4, 5, 6
Courtesy Michael Green Architecture
1. Second lift outer core walls and floors 2. Brace outer core 3. Install core floors 4. Will require lift on floor 6 to access connections 1. Second lift outer walls 2. Brace walls 3. Repeat steps 4, 5, 6

If ever there was a moment to reset the way we build, now is the time. The last century's methods of building for global population growth have resulted in unprecedented environmental and climate impact. Our addiction to the fossil fuels we put in cars is no different than our profession's addiction to building steel and concrete structures that pump out emissions and consume energy with abandon during their production. It is time for a dramatic change.

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To slow greenhouse gas emissions and find truly sustainable, big-picture solutions to today's climate, economic, and shelter needs, we must look at the way we build—from the bones of large urban structures to the details of energy performance. It was in the spirit of returning to the materials of our past—those that are rapidly renewable and grown by the sun—that set structural engineer Eric Karsh and me to dream big and develop our techniques for taller building structures using wood as the principal structural material.

Concrete and steel have large carbon footprints and are highly energy intensive to produce. The production of concrete represents 5 to 8 percent of all man-made carbon emissions globally—several times the airline industry's total emissions. Steel is one of the most energy-intensive building materials available, consuming more than 4 percent of global energy during its production.

Wood's ability to store carbon makes it an important challenger to steel and concrete. When forests are sustainably managed and harvested, wood is responsible for less air and water pollution than other building materials. Even after a tree is harvested and converted to wood building products, the materials continue to store carbon dioxide, whereas virtually every other building material adds carbon to the atmosphere. The elements of managing climate change are to reduce emissions and store carbon. Wood is the only major building material that does both.

To compete with steel and concrete in big buildings, our structural solutions must evolve. Recent updates in building codes have paved the way for a systemic change in the way we design and build urban environments, but we as a culture have to move swiftly with code evolution and innovation if we are to keep up with the scale of the world's challenges.

In a recently released study titled " The Case for Tall Wood Buildings," Karsh and I demonstrate how we can collectively push the world's imagination higher to build tall wood structures with tilt-up mass timber panels in a cost-effective and simple manner. The mass timber products are engineered for strength through laminations, allowing the construction of tall wood buildings up to 30 stories. This approach offers significant benefits over traditional light wood techniques in terms of fire performance, acoustic performance, structural performance and scale, material stability, and construction efficiency, and it meets performance intent of codes for mid- to high-rise structures. It would make wood cost-competitive with steel and concrete and the most cost-effective choice in time as global energy prices rise and a cost is assigned to carbon emissions.

We must seek opportunities to continue to innovate and advance our building methodologies. The use of wood presents an abundance of opportunities as we restore our profession's commitment to the big ideas that can change the world. It is an exciting time for innovation. It is time for us to dream big again.

Michael Green is a founding principal at Michael Green Architecture (MGA) in Vancouver, Canada, and cocreator of the FFTT system for tall wood buildings.

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