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Why we may soon be building ten-story buildings out of wood

Rendering of an award-winning wood building proposed for New York City. (2015 SHoP Architects PC)

The Obama administration — more specifically, its Department of Agriculture, headed by Tom Vilsack — has a surprising idea about the future of large building construction.

For environmental purposes but also to potentially stoke a new industry, it wants the United States to explore constructing really big buildings — 10 stories or more — out of wood. Accordingly, the Department backed the U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition, in conjunction with the Softwood Lumber Board and Binational Softwood Lumber Council. And now two winning buildings, whose selection will be announced Thursday, will receive $1.5 million apiece to try to move toward  actual construction.

The overall idea is to demonstrate that building tall wood buildings is actually a feasible idea.

One winning building, whose rendering is depicted above, is proposed to be  at 475 W. 18th St. in New York City. Being developed by 130-134 Holdings, in collaboration with several partners (including SHoP Architects), it will be a 10-story  condo building, and is proposed to start construction about a year from now.

The second winner is a proposed 12-story combined office and apartment building in Portland, Ore.

“We think there are benefits to this,”  Vilsack said. “First and foremost there is the opportunity to have more energy-efficient construction, because the way this cross-laminated timber is prefabricated, it essentially fits together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.”

“Secondly, the opportunity of building with wood, we obviously will maintain the carbon sequestration benefits of that wood from a climate perspective and we’ll reduce that potential risk of fire a bit,” Vilsack continues.

Or as the Department added in the Federal Register:

A recent life cycle analysis found that harvesting, transporting, manufacturing, and using wood in lumber and panel products in building yields fewer air emissions — including greenhouse gases — than the resource extraction, manufacture, and use of other common building materials.

In the last five years, 17 tall wood buildings have been built around the world that are over seven stories in height, including this 10-story apartment building in Melbourne, Australia, and this six-story one in British Columbia, Canada. In Bergen, Norway, construction is underway on a 14-story wood building that would be the tallest in the world.

One of the instinctive concerns with these buildings is that they will be a fire risk, but proponents say that’s not the case at all. “Mass timber buildings resist and contain fire, in part due to the inherent nature of the thick, solid panels,” one tall wood fact sheet asserts. “Heavy timbers char on the outside while retaining strength, allowing the timber to retain 80 percent of its original strength, slowing combustion and allowing time to evacuate the building.”

At least at this point, wood buildings are also limited in height — mid-sized buildings have been built  in other countries, but skyscrapers are another matter entirely. In general, the idea faces a considerable burden of proof — wood builders will have to show that buildings can be just as safe, as well as prove their claims about energy efficiency — which is precisely why the competition aims to demonstrate the feasibility of such buildings.

But to hear Vilsack tell it, this is also about the environment  and about forests (the Agriculture Department manages the U.S. Forest Service). Ultimately, he hopes, there could be a way of pairing together tall wood construction with U.S. forest restoration — namely, by putting insect-ravaged trees into buildings before a wildfire can come along and torch them, releasing their carbon into the atmosphere. Instead, it will be stored in the wood of a building.

“There’s 45 million acres of that diseased wood that’s available, and that currently presents a fire risk,” Vilsack says. “And so, to the extent that we can create this opportunity, it will result, I believe, over time, in more of that diseased wood being removed as opposed to burned.”

But most of all, the secretary believes that wood buildings will win people over by how they look and feel.

“I tell you, when you’re in New York City, all of a sudden you see a 10-story wood condominium building, and that becomes the talk of the town, that’s obviously going to encourage a lot of attention,” Vilsack says.