Alvar Aalto once said that wood is the most deeply human of all materials. More and more architects see it as the future.
This is partly because innovations in timber composites like glulam and CLT are providing new choices.
Andrew Waugh, partner at London architects Waugh Thistleton, has been building with CLT (cross-laminated timber) for more than a decade. In February, the practice unveiled Orsman Road, a sustainable five storey co-working space in London’s Hackney, made of CLT, marmoleum tiles, clay finishes and repurposed furniture. It is one of many wooden high-rises taking shape around the world.
In Vancouver, the world’s tallest timber tower is underway. Stretching to 71 metres, Terrace House is the work of Japanese Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban, who has long supported sustainability through his cardboard tubing architecture and prefabricated construction methods. Such is the abundance of forests in British Columbia, that in 2019 local government changed its building codes, effectively doubling the height limit for wood-frame buildings to 12 storeys. They hope that this will have a ripple effect across Canada and the world.
Scandinavia, too, is profiting from its abundant forests and exploring new ideas in timber construction. In Arstafaltet, Stockholm, a scheme for 200 timber homes is in planning and four 20-storey towers in indigenous pine are being built by Swedish architects Tham & Videgård on the city’s waterfront. In Copenhagen, Danish practice Henning Larsen is creating Fælledby, the city’s first all-timber neighbourhood. Located on a former dumping ground, it will accommodate 7,000 residents and almost half the 18-hectare site will be dedicated to parkland and wild outdoor space. When the Skellefteå Cultural Centre opens next year just below the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden, it will be the country’s tallest wooden building. Created by Swedish practice White Arkitekter, its design pays homage to the region’s timber building tradition.
“We are at the tipping point of a timber revolution,” says Signe Kongebro, project architect at Fælledby. “There are obstacles, particularly regarding fire safety, but we need to make timber part of an urban vision, with its own building codes and legislation.”
Along with this comes the problem of perception. Timber construction is a modern downshift away from heavy carbon consumption, not a rewind to the past. “We need to turn to replenishable materials, to alternative energies, fresh air and daylight,” says Waugh. “It’s time to dismantle the systems that have gone before and build differently.”
Text by Emma O’Kelly