Earlier this month, the University of British Columbia announced that construction on its new student residence was set to begin. No ordinary residence, the 18-story building will be constructed using wood.
Upon completion, it will be the tallest wood building in the world.
But an 18-story building, made of wood? Isn’t wood flammable? And can you really build a wood building that tall? These are all valid concerns—but also, concerns that architects are working to dispel with increasing urgency in the search for eco-friendly alternatives to fuel-intensive concrete and steel.
Outside of North America, a number of tall wood buildings of various heights have already been built. There’s a nine-story mixed-use residential and commercial building in Milan, and handful of eight-story buildings in Austria, Germany, England and Sweden. The tallest to date, a mixed-use building in Melbourne, Australia, is ten stories tall.
But the UBC residence, at 18 stories, will by far be the tallest (a 14-story building is also under construction in Norway, as is a 12-story building in Portland, and a ten-story tower in New York City).
“Their designs are reaching heights and widths unfathomable even five years ago, and they are leading a paradigm shift in construction,” reads an article in The Walrusmagazine, a profile of Vancouver wood architecture firms. “It’s not just that they’re building with new, stronger boards; they may well also have found an eco-friendly replacement for concrete and steel.”
But that’s just one of the arguments in favour of wood. Wood is also renewable, proponents say, and not only is there’s less of an impact on the environment than building with, say, concrete and steel—consider the cost of resource extraction alone—wood actually captures and stores carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere for its lifespan.
As for fear of fire, wood proponents insist that fire protection strategies such as coatings and sprinkler systems are effective deterrents—and that even if a piece of timber were to catch on fire, the wood used in tall wood buildings tends to burn slowly, and is purposefully oversized to account for burning, or char.
But for all its potential, tall wood buildings have been virtually nonexistent in North America. A 2014 survey of tall wood buildings around the world found, in part, that “there is a strong regulatory grounding in Europe that supports the use of low carbon materials, renewable resources and energy efficiency in construction.”
“These policies directly and indirectly encourage tall wood and mass timber construction,” the report reads.
And in North America, there are other hurdles. In an ArchDaily interview with Rebecca Holt, who worked as an analyst on the report, Holt admitted there was still “work to do to change perceptions of fire risk and durability.” Meanwhile, in Canada for example, the building code limits wood buildings to just six stories—a limit that was only lifted this year, in British Columbia anyhow, with the province’s passing of a new Building Act.
But survey respondents were optimistic that these hurdles could be overcome, and heights would only continue to grow. The hope is that, with the publicity that record-breaking tall wood buildings such as the UBC residence will draw, it may prove to people once and for all that wood can actually rival that of concrete and steel.