Wooden skyscrapers: Sustainable homes of the future?

The Centre for Natural Material Innovation exhibit proposals for timber skyscrapers at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition. The research team is led by Sidney Fellow Dr Michael Ramage.

Recent innovations in engineered timber have laid the foundations for the world’s first wooden skyscrapers to appear within a decade, a feat that is not only achievable - according to the Centre for Natural Material Innovation - but one they hope will beckon in an era of sustainable wooden cities, helping reverse historic emissions from the construction industry.

Dr Micheal Ramage, Sidney Fellow, Vice-Master, and Director of Studies in Architecture, is the Princial Investigator in the research team, based at the Faculty of Architecture. The team includes architects, biochemists, chemists, mathematicians and engineers.

Michael Ramage said, “Until cross-laminated timber, there was simply no building material to challenge steel or reinforced concrete. To construct cities and indeed skyscrapers, we just had to accept the good and the bad of existing materials.

“Concrete is about five times heavier than timber, which means more expense for foundations and transport; it’s resource-intensive, and contributes to tremendous carbon dioxide emissions. After water, concrete is the most consumed material by humanity. But now we have an alternative, and it’s plant-based.”

Michael and the research team recognise that it is more important than ever to move away from using unsustainable materials given that in England alone, 340,000 new homes are required each year over the next 12 years to accommodate our population.

Using trees ahead of concrete as the predominant building material for cities could simultaneously address climate change and global housing shortages.

Dr Ramage explained: “Timber is the only building material we can grow, and that actually reduces carbon dioxide. Every tonne of timber expunges 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Doing the calculations, if all new English homes were constructed from timber, we could capture and offset the carbon footprints of around 850,000 people for 10 years.

“The sustainable forests of Europe take just 7 seconds to grow the volume of timber required for a 3 bedroom apartment, and 4 hours to grow a 300 metre supertall skyscraper. Canada’s sustainable forests alone yield enough timber to house a billion people in perpetuity, with forested trees replenishing faster than their eventual occupants.”

Teams around the world are hoping to produce the tallest wooden skyscraper, however Michael and his team are confident they’ll be the first, having done holistic work on three proposals for timber skyscrapers in London, Chicago, and the Hague, all of which are set to be showcased to the public at the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition 2019, freely open to the public from July 1–7.

Michael and the research team's exhibit - Timber towers of tomorrow - will allow visitors to explore the science and engineering of super tall timber from cells to skyscrapers. Visitors can experience life in a treehouse while talking with the team, viewing architectural models of timber towers, learning about the fire performance properties of engineered timber, and hearing about the genetic, cellular, and macroscale innovations which have led to ply in the sky designs becoming a reality.

News item posted Tuesday, 2nd July 2019

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