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Could Wood – Glued-Together Layered Slabs Of It – Become The Next High-Tech Building Material?

Dec 29, 2016

Trätoppen, a proposed building in Stockholm.Photo: Courtesy of Anders Berensson Architects

Until recently, there were two basic ways of using wood in construction: chop down whole tree trunks for heavy beams or saw them into two-by-fours. The first, which produced log cabins and medieval church roofs, is costly and inefficient today, relying on scarce old-growth. The second gives us stick-built houses but nothing much taller than a few floors. Now a third technique, sandwiching layers of wood and adhesive, yields cross-laminated timber (CLT), a kind of super-plywood that comes in immense slabs as long as a bowling lane and as thick as 12 inches. A similar process yields steel-hard beams called glulam. The principle is almost touchingly simple: “Gluing a stack of cards together produces something stronger than building a house of cards,” says architect Do Janne Vermeulen, a principal at the Dutch firm Team V Architecture.

New structural systems come along rarely, and when they do, they usually wind up transforming cities. When steel replaced iron at the end of the 19th century, the path from the ten-story Home Insurance Building in Chicago to the Empire State Building took less than 50 years. Today, mass timber (the umbrella term for CLT and glulam) could have a similarly radical impact, because it gives architects and builders a chance to think in fresh ways — “the first new way to put up tall buildings in 100 years,” says the Vancouver-based architect Michael Green. Everyone responds to the charm and idiosyncrasies of wood — violin and guitar-makers have always understood wood’s strength and emotional power — and at a time when almost all new big buildings are glass-wrapped boxes of concrete and steel, the resurgence of an old-time building material feels like a hopeful breeze. And yet architects have only just begun to assimilate the imaginative tools that new timber technologies give them.