American city skylines are dominated by three materials: glass, concrete, and steel. They comprise much of what amounts to the average skyscraper, especially in older industry-centered cities across the eastern and central United States. Though the steel and concrete approach to building massive structures has been more or less a constant through the last century, today’s architects are aiming to create massive urban structures with more renewable materials, and that could mean a skyline shaped by timber.
Philadelphia is one of the latest locations where wood-based building projects may soon be on the horizon. Proponents of more environmentally friendly urban development and suppliers of American-made timber bolts have good reason to be excited about this building trend, and even experienced architects are motivated to bring more wooden-based designs to their cities.
The Skyhive Skyscraper’s Challenge encourages architects to submit entries for innovative and unconventional hypothetical skyscraper designs. A group of architects at Hickok Cole, a Washington D.C. based agency, has proposed a 62-story, three tower project framed in timber. The design would include residential, office, and retail spaces and would feature a bridge connecting two of the towers.
The design is certainly unique and purely conceptual at this time, but the use of timber is meant to solve some very real and pressing challenges for urban development. Philly native and Hickok Cole architect Sean McTaggart explains that the concept is part of an effort to show that timber offers multiple benefits for more environmentally sustainable buildings. “First, it takes a lot more energy to produce and build with concrete and steel than it does with mass timber. Additionally, steel and concrete are responsible for a lot of carbon emissions.” Mr. McTaggart has also cited a study showing how large timber projects can reduce carbon emissions by up to 75 percent.
While lots of people see the use of timber as a forward-thinking approach to infrastructure, it’s one of the oldest building materials used by humans, and that can raise worries over fire hazards that amounted to major disasters for cities of yesteryear. Proponents of timber-based buildings are eager to point out that today’s timber structures don’t come with the same vulnerabilities as light-frame wood construction. When faced with this concern, Mr. McTaggart is eager to point out, “In the event of a fire, it immediately forms a protective char.”
As wood offers a level of renewability that’s not obtainable with steel or concrete, it may become a more common material for buildings of the future. The greatest roadblock for use of wood in urban developments may simply be dispelling misconceptions and getting more people used to the idea. Perhaps there’s no better way to do that than to start breaking ground on new timber based buildings in U.S. cities.