You have to like any headline which says “Seeds planted for London’s first wooden skyscraper” for so many reasons. The Greenwood Strikes Back, perhaps? Actually, it’s a very good, very challenging, and potentially very valuable, idea.

The question is whether a 300-metre-tall wooden skyscraper can actually be built. The wooden skyscraper idea germinated at Cambridge University, a project by Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture, PLP Architecture and engineering firm Smith and Wallwork. The building can deliver about 1 million square feet of residential space for London’s “tensely cozy” urban sprawl. Plans were presented to London Mayor Boris Johnson this week.

The current tallest residential wooden building is only 32 metres, in Melbourne Australia, a 10 storey residential building in the Docklands development in central Melbourne. The Cambridge tall timber is nearly 10 times bigger.

The Melbourne building uses “cross laminated timber” aka CLT, which is structurally as strong as concrete and steel. The structural strength issue, obviously, is a major factor in the Cambridge design issues, managing loads and distribution of weight. The CLT approach or something similar means that the timber supports can have clearly defined load capacity.

Seeds of doubt? Not really

Timber construction, in fact, is historically a good move. There are still many original Tudor buildings in England, using much of the original timber beam supports. Timber is extremely versatile, and extremely durable, if properly maintained. Bigger timber buildings, in fact, could provide excellent design options, too, because timber is much easier to work with than conventional steel and concrete designs, despite Frank Gehrig and other aficionados in these materials.

As a test case for high wooden buildings, the Cambridge design has a lot going for it. In theory, it’d be possible to deliver a vast range of fascinating designs for medium density buildings, using old and new designs, to liven up the usual urban shoebox collection environments around the world.

The bottom line with the new skyscraper idea is that it can achieve so much:

  1. It can provide good residential space in an area of high demand
  2. Wooden buildings have much smaller carbon footprints than conventional buildings.
  3. It can solve a lot of the issues of materials for modern residential buildings
  4. The issues of high strength timber building construction can be thoroughly explored; this definitely won’t be a waste of anyone’s professional time
  5. Timber supports and frames could be dovetailed with the many incredible recently discovered new high strength materials to add extra support grunt where required.
  6. It might be possible to use things like “wooden windows”, transparent wood, to achieve seamless lighting.
  7. Thermal properties and insulation properties of wood can generate power savings, another plus in a market where energy usage and demand is forever increasing.

This idea deserves to get off the ground; it could be a major practical breakthrough to urban living space needs, as well as a virtual Magellan’s voyage in architecture. With any luck, London’s biggest tree will be a roaring success.