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Credit: Big Wood © Michael Charters eVolo Magazine

Coming Attractions

Building With Wood

In the words of designer Michael Charters, “the high-rise is tired.” His design here is for a site in Chicago at the corner of Harrison and Wells. Charters believes that since Chicago was the birthplace of the skyscraper, it is the suitable birthplace for “Big Wood,” mass timber, carbon-neutral structures that change not only the materials of urban buildings but the shape of them. This particular building is a mixed-use complex for the University of Chicago consisting of a library, media hub, three types of housing, retail, a sports complex, parking, a park, and a community garden.

With the Industrial Revolution, steel and concrete became the dominant construction materials. Wood use declined, relegated to single-family homes and low-rise structures. But that is beginning to change thanks to high-strength wood technologies, namely glued laminated timber (glulam) and cross-laminated timber (CLT), and the need to reduce emissions from construction.

Building with wood has two key climate benefits:

  1. As they grow, trees absorb and sequester carbon, which remains stored in timber construction materials. A unit of dry wood is 50 percent carbon, and that carbon is locked in while the wood is in use.
  2. The process of producing those materials generates fewer greenhouse gas emissions than wood’s alternatives, like cement or steel.

According to a 2014 study, building with wood could reduce annual global emissions of carbon dioxide by 14 to 31 percent.

Conventional wisdom suggests that wood and high-rise buildings are incompatible, and that flammability is an issue. A renaissance in the processing and manufacturing of wood is challenging those limitations. New high-performance products are more fire resistant, as well as more cost-effective and stronger than ever. What’s more, they can be prefabricated and then put together like a giant piece of furniture, reducing construction costs.


timber-framed buildings [in ancient] China: Fu, Xinian. “Architecture Technology.” In A History of Chinese Science and Technology, Volume 3, edited by Yongxiang Lu, 1-194. Springer, 2015.

Hōryū-ji Temple…Ikaruga, Japan: UNESCO, World Heritage Centre. “Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area.”

[multi]-story apartment building[s]: Cathcart-Keays, Athlyn. “Wooden Skyscrapers Could Be the Future of Flat-Pack Cities Around the World.” The Guardian. October 3, 2014; Callaghan, Greg. “New Wood: How It Will Change Our Skyline.” Sydney Morning Herald. August 27, 2016; Risen, Clay. “The World’s Most Advanced Building Material Is…Wood.” Popular Science. March 2014.

Glulam…in British churches and schools: Slavid, Ruth. Wood Architecture. London: Laurence King, 2005.

cross-laminated timber…“new concrete”: Risen, “Wood.”

dry wood is 50 percent carbon: Oliver, Chadwick Dearing, Nedal T. Nassar, Bruce R. Lippke, and James B. McCarter. “Carbon, Fossil Fuel, and Biodiversity Mitigation with Wood and Forests.” Journal of Sustainable Forestry 33, no. 3 (2014): 248-275.

Cement…emissions: Amato, Ivan. “Green Cement: Concrete Solutions.” Nature 494, no. 7437 (2013): 300-301; Scrivener, Karen L., Vanderley M. John, and Ellis M. Gartner. Eco-Efficient Cements: Potential, Economically Viable Solutions for a Low-CO2, Cement-Based Materials Industry.” Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme, 2016.

steel beams…fossil fuel [use]: Oliver et al, “Wood and Forests.”

[potential to] reduce annual global emissions: Oliver et al, “Wood and Forests.”

high-performance products…fire resistant: Gerard, Robert, David Barber, and Armin Wolski. Fire Safety Challenges of Tall Wood Buildings. Quincy, MA: Fire Protection Research Foundation, 2013.

cost-effective and stronger than ever: Green, Michael C. and J. Eric Karsh. The Case for Tall Wood Buildings: How Mass Timber Offers a Safe, Economical, and Environmentally Friendly Alternative for Tall Building Structures. mgb Architecture + Design, 2012.

Ise Jingu…in Mie, Japan: Vallely, Paul. “History in the Making: An Unprecedented Visit to Ise Jingu, Japan’s Holiest Shrine, to See It Rebuilt Under the Beliefs of the Shinto Religion.” The Independent. June 22, 2014.

U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize: USDA. “U.S. Tall Wood Building Prize Competition Winners Revealed.” Press release. U.S. Department of Agriculture, New York, September 17, 2015.

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