You would’ve heard of buildings made of aluminium (example: Chicago’s John Hancock Center, built in 1965 with five million pounds of aluminum, roughly enough metal to manufacture the equivalent of 96 tour buses). You may have also come across the famous Sears Tower, the 1,400-foot skyscraper that used more than 176 million pounds of steel.
Could Chicago claim another ‘world’s tallest’ record? If a wild new conceptual design for an 80-storey wooden tower from architects Perkins+Will moves forward, Chicago could boast of having the world’s tallest timber tower. And this should come as no surprise, as Chicago has always been a city known for its metal and concrete structures. As per an ambitious new proposal, Chicago’s skyline will soon be adorned with wood, which may even be adopted by skyscrapers around the world.
At present, architects are exploring a new kind of high-rise structure built entirely from timber on a site along the Chicago River. As per the masterplan, River Beech Tower, a residential highrise, if built, would be taller than any existing timber building. The spindly, beechwood building whose 80 storeys cut a blonde silhouette against Chicago’s dark, glassy horizon, hasn’t been constructed yet, and may never be. It’s part of an ongoing research project between Cambridge University, architects at Perkins+Will, and engineers at Thornton Tomasetti that aims to answer lingering questions around how exactly architects and engineers might bring these massive timber towers to life.
It’s not the first time that wood and skyscrapers are being talked about in the same breath. In the design world, the trend for timber-framed highrises has been emerging fast. River Beech is just one of the many ambitious ideas that have popped up in the past couple of years. Designers have proposed a scheme for an equally tall wooden skyscraper in London called Oakwood Tower. If built, it would become London’s second-tallest building after The Shard, and may also be the tallest wooden structure in the world. There could be 1,000 houses in the 93,000 square-metre floor plan, which might also include mid-rise terraces. In Stockholm, plans for a 436-foot residential building—the tallest in the city—are in the works. The cross-laminated timber skyscraper would feature 250 apartments, with floors covered with a perforated-timber screen. Zaha Hadid Architects has recently won the commission to construct a 5,000-seat all-timber soccer stadium in England.
The emerging interest in timber is due to a variety of reasons, the obvious one being that it’s a renewable resource. Wood isn’t new, of course. Until the late 19th century, timber was still the dominant building material until brutal city fires tore through major American cities. This led to the emergence of new materials like steel and concrete. But new innovations have made wood attractive again. Take cross-laminated timber, a kind of super-strong plywood, made by glueing together different pieces of wood to form a layered composite that rivals the strength of steel. This new material, paired with precision digital manufacturing processes, allows architects to build with timber at heights unimaginable a century ago. And its environmental properties make it even more attractive; wood acts like a lock box for carbon dioxide, sequestering excess CO2 from the air.
Today, the tallest timber building in the world is just north of Green’s T3, an 18-storey dormitory in Vancouver called Brock Commons. The building, set to finish construction in the next couple of weeks, looks similar to any other steel or concrete building—a boxy, rectangular frame built from wooden modules that snap together like oversized Lego. But it provides important proof that timber can be used in large buildings.