Timber towers: The future of tall wood design

What is next for mass timber?

Mass timber projects can be built 20 percent faster and with a smaller construction crew. Offsite, prefabricated construction also offers a safer working environment.
Mass timber projects can be built 20 percent faster and with a smaller construction crew. Offsite, prefabricated construction also offers a safer working environment.

The industry stumbled a bit this year because a CLT panel failure at Oregon State University’s campus and the cancelled 10-story Framework project in Portland raised doubts as to the long-term viability of the construction technology. However, a Silicon Valley start-up is moving forward with a massive CLT facility in Spokane, Washington, scheduled to open in 2019.

Meanwhile, global developer Hines, fresh off a success in Minneapolis, has taken its ‘T3’ model to Atlanta and soon Chicago, and rumor has it the company seeks to build a T3 in every major market. Michael Green Architecture (recently acquired by Katerra) is also in the early phases of a 10-story timber office building in Newark, New Jersey. Next year, an 18-story tower in Norway will overtake Vancouver’s Brock Commons TallWood House student dormitory as the tallest mass timber project in the world, and a residential tower in Stockholm may soon after reach 34 stories.

Further down the road, a 70-story Tokyo timber skyscraper has already started generating buzz, but at the moment is just a schematic design, decades away from construction. There have been similar hypothetical projects in London, Chicago, and New York City, more intended to provoke a discussion than to serve as serious proposals. Likewise, it could be another generation before a project like Philly’s Timber Towers can be built. The author feels architects need to educate clients and the general public about the benefits of mass timber, at scales both large and small. In the meantime, Hickok Cole’s Kingman Islands mass timber ranger station, with funding from the city of D.C. and SLB, will someday soon serve as an educational facility, just a short drive from Capitol Hill.

Talking to industry experts, attending seminars, and meeting with code officials is crucial, and this sharing of research and knowledge will help facilitate a collective understanding of mass timber’s potential. Throughout history, many significant architectural movements have followed behind major structural breakthroughs, and the time has come for architects to find ways to reduce our carbon footprint, minimize waste, and truly rethink the construction process.

Sean McTaggart, AIA, LEED GA, is a project architect at Hickok Cole. Originally from South Jersey, he attended Catholic University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a B.S. in architecture, Master of Architecture, and a Master of Science in Sustainable Design. McTaggart played a major role in the recent Philly Timber Towers iLab research/design project. He can be reached at smctaggart@hickokcole.com.

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One comment on “Timber towers: The future of tall wood design”

  1. Just because it can be done….does not mean it SHOULD be done! Wood in a skyscraper, no offence, are you kidding me? Even if treated for possible termite infestation, wood absorbs moisture, dimensional changes and structural integrity WILL change over the years. I personally would never live or work in a building of this stature built from wood or composites. I am all for environmental compliance and cutting edge technologies…but this is an accident waiting to happen IMHO.

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