Last week the USDA announced plans to invest up to $1 million to establish a prize competition “to demonstrate the architectural and commercial viability of using sustainable wood productions in high-rise construction.” The announcement was made at the Building With Wood: Jobs and the Environment workshop hosted by the White House Rural Council. The Binational Softwood Lumber Council has also committed to ponying up another $1 million to fund the competition. There isn’t much information about the competition yet, but it is expected to start later this year and applicants who source building materials from domestic, sustainably-managed forests and rural manufacturers will be given higher priority.
It was also announced that the USDA would be partnering with WoodWorks to create a training program to educate architects, engineers and contractors on designing and building with advanced wood building materials. The Forest Service will make an investment of $1 million to establish the training program. According to their website, WoodWorks is a non-profit organization established by the Wood Products Council “to provide free technical support as well as education and resources related to the design of non-residential and multi-family wood buildings.”
Let’s be clear, when we are talking about advanced wood building materials or building wooden skyscrapers we’re talking about using mass timber products which is an entirely different beast from the milled lumber, stick-built structures used in residential construction and mid-rise commercial construction. One of the biggest challenges for those championing the use mass timber will be changing peoples’ perceptions. I think if you suggest using wood as the main structural component for a high-rise building, most folks form an image in their mind akin to the ill-fated Glass Tower building in “The Towering Inferno.” (Side note: If you’ve never watched it, “The Towering Inferno” was the best of the 1970s disaster flicks and starred three of the greatest actors of all time: Steve McQueen, Paul Newman and William Holden.)
Mass timber products have been shown to be comparable or better than steel and concrete in terms of strength and structural integrity. Mass timber is lighter than concrete and uses less energy to produce than concrete and steel. Mass timber products also have fire-retarding properties thanks to charring which can be further enhanced through gypsum board encapsulation and other fireproofing treatments. Wood is also renewable and more eco-friendly than steel and concrete when it is responsibly and sustainably sourced. Assuming that mass timber products and milled lumber are similar in terms of strength, structural integrity and fire-resistance because they are both made of wood is patently false. It’s like saying a street race between a Ford Pinto and a McLaren F1 should be competitive because they are both automobiles.
Tall wood buildings have been gaining support and traction in Europe and Canada, but haven’t had nearly as much interest in the United States. Luckily, the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) is a strong advocate promoting the acceptance of tall wood buildings as a sustainable alternative to building with steel and concrete. SOM are tall building experts having designed iconic skyscrapers such as the Willis (Sears) Tower, the 1,004-ft Cayan Tower in Dubai and the 1,776-ft One World Trade Center. SOM published a research paper last year on a case study to demonstrate that a 42-story building could be built using cross laminated timber for the floors, central core and shear walls and glue laminated lumber, or glulam, for the building columns. Concrete beams would be used along perimeter of each floor. The design was based on the SOM-designed Dewitt-Chestnut Apartments, which was the first building to use the tubular construction method. Support from a firm like SOM is going to go a long way in making tall wood buildings a reality in the United States.
We talk about green and sustainable construction quite a bit on this blog not because it’s trendy and cool (even though it’s both), but because it’s the future. The prize competition and training program announced by the USDA last week are just two of the many steps needed in the right direction. The day is going to come in the next few decades when drop the qualifiers of “green” and “sustainable” to differentiate it from traditional construction because at some point all construction will be green and sustainable.