Vancouver architect Michael Green, who co-wrote the book on building skyscrapers out of wood timbers, has a role in an audacious proposal to construct the world’s tallest to stand as a beacon on the Paris skyline.
At 35 stories, the wooden tower Green’s team is proposing would have to be approved as an exception to Paris’s existing height limits for wood structures, but he hopes winning the bid could be the “Eiffel-Tower moment” for the acceptance of tall timber buildings he has been advocating for close to a decade.
It is an example Green uses frequently in speaking. Gustave Eiffel’s 301-metre tower “blew the socks off the entire idea of how tall you could build a building,” he said in an interview.
Green’s firm, MGA, unveiled the proposal this week as its entry into the Reinventer Paris competition, a bold effort by local authorities to search for innovations in urban design and sustainability capable of revitalizing Parisian architecture.
He sees the opportunity to showcase wood as a sustainable, carbon-sequestering building material in Paris, and make as grand a statement as the Eiffel Tower did in 1889.
Green and structural engineer Eric Karsh in 2012 wrote their case for buildings of 30 storeys or more in a report titled Tall Wood, which sparked a discussion among architects and engineers on reintroducing wood to highrise construction in a modern context.
They proved out a lot of their methods by building the more modestly scaled, 29.5-metre Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George, which opened late last year.
That included testing to prove the timber panels and beams wouldn’t easily catch fire and would meet the same building code requirements for two-hour fire separation between floors that apply to steel and concrete structures.
Proposals for taller wood structures are being advanced in North America, including an 18-storey student residence building at the University of B.C., and in Sweden and Austria.
Now, with the Reinventer Paris competition, “all of a sudden wood is this great opportunity, why not make Paris the city to celebrate it first,” Green said.
Of course, the team with which Green’s firm is entering the competition has to make it through a daunting selection process.
For the contest, the Paris authorities offered up 23 sites around the city for potential redevelopment, seeking proposals that demonstrate architectural, social and environmental innovations to help revitalize the city.
“We are launching this call for innovative urban projects in order to prefigure what the Paris of tomorrow might be,” Mayor Anne Hidalgo said in a statement on the competition’s website.
And the city has approved 650 of 815 applications submitted into the first stage of the competition. The response has been global as well with proposals coming from 15 countries as far away as Brazil, Singapore and South Korea.
Green said MGA was invited to take part in the bid on a team with French architects DVVD Paris and developer REI France, whose principals he struck up a friendship with after lecturing in the City of Light about two-and-a-half years ago.
The/REI/MGA/DVVD team chose to compete for a spot on Boulevard Pershing, with a cluster of mass-timber wood buildings, which would be prominent within the view from the La Defense business district of Paris to the Arc de Triomphe.
“This is the largest site that was available, and it will be highly competitive,” Green said. At this point, Paris officials haven’t even told them how many other proposals have been made on the same site.
The development, which the proponents of named Baobab, would revitalize what is now the surface parking lot for a bus depot with a mix of market and social housing a student hotel and urban agriculture.
Green said the depot, the main bus link to the Beauvais airport outside Paris that serves mainly low-cost airlines, will remain at the development’s base. The buildings will be elevated over top with walking and bike paths not unlike New York City’s High Line.
He is hedging that although the height of the buildings exceeds zoning limits, its stepped design will help soften the impact of the other big exception on the skyline, the 44-storey Palais de Congres building that sits right next to the Boulevard Pershing Site “like a sore thumb.”
The French government has also taken a renewed interest in increasing the amount of wood used in construction, Green said, which they hope is good timing for their proposal.
Green’s firm is writing something of a sequel to his original report, a book documenting the rise of tall wood buildings, and he said he is “blown away” by the momentum building behind wood construction.
Wood is still in “stiff competition” with traditional steel and concrete, said Vancouver structural engineer Paul Fast, founding partner of the firm Fast + Epp, a pioneer in using engineered wood products in large construction projects.
His firm is working on the 18-storey student residence at UBC and has made proposals to build similarly tall “hybrid” structures in Vancouver, buildings combining a lot of wood with concrete and steel. However, Fast said using wood is a matter of “finding the right building type, the right application.”
“Wood plays a fabulous role in buildings and it’s very underutilized,” Fast said, but it is also the weakest of construction’s triumvirate of wood-steel-concrete, so “with high rises, in my view, you have to pick its spots.”
Buildings like hotels, student residences or social housing would fit in the category of easier to build, Fast said.
t in the category of easier to build, Fast said.