At first, it can seem like the fantasy of an overwrought tree-hugger. A tall building with a structural frame fashioned from wood?
If this is indeed a dream, it may be about to come true in British Columbia. In the northern B.C. town of Prince George, for example, the provincial government plans to raise a ten-storey tower intended to demonstrate the viability of using forest products to do the job of heavy lifting monopolized, until now, by steel and concrete.
And last spring, Vancouver architect Michael Green (a key Canadian student and promoter of new wood applications) unveiled a scheme for a 30-storey tower held aloft by a timber frame. Mr. Green is convinced that putting up a safe, sturdy large building of this kind in Vancouver is now possible, given recent advances in the fabrication of very strong wooden structural members. And he believes that doing so is also ecologically desirable: Trees, at least in Canada, are resources that are almost infinitely renewable.
Interest in these engaging matters is hardly limited to B.C.
Over the next several months, the three principals in the Toronto-based office of Williamson Chong Architects (WCA) will be travelling in Europe and Asia to scout out what leading-edge researchers, manufacturers and designers abroad are doing with wood.
The journeys of WCA's Shane Williamson, Betsy Williamson and Donald Chong will be powered by the $50,000 grant that comes with the Canada Council's prestigious 2012 Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture, which they won earlier this summer. (The Council's other important architectural prize this year, the $10,000 Ronald J. Thom Award for Early Design Achievement, went to Toronto-based Paul Raff Studio, a firm noted for its environmentally sustainable projects.)
Last week, I visited WCA's headquarters (situated in a wonderful former chewing-gum factory east of downtown Toronto), and spoke there with Shane Williamson. Why is wood on his mind these days, and on the minds of other Canadian and international architects?
"Our interest in wood follows from a real contemporary stream associated with notions of sustainability," Mr. Williamson said. "To see even the most general charts of the embedded energy of wood, compared to materials such as concrete and steel, is to be immediately [persuaded] that it's a renewable resource with the lowest carbon footprint--a really fantastic material."
The nuts-and-bolts work of Michael Green, and the increasing availability of super-muscular wooden building components that rival concrete and steel in strength and grace under pressure, also inspire WCA's upcoming investigations. Mr. Williamson has high hopes, especially, for the future of cross-laminated timber (CLT), a powerful product that resembles plywood.
"It's what people are talking about right now," Mr. Williamson said. "It is produced in manufacturing plants with great precision. You end up with a fairly extraordinary system that can produce the equivalent of homogenous wood panels at tremendous scales--52 feet long, for example…Manufacturing may be away from a building site, and [CLT elements] are assembled in a very dumb way. There are very large screws, for example, twelve inches long, and the whole system is clipped and screwed into place, reducing the construction time to days or weeks, compared to months.
"What's very interesting about CLT is that it is a material with a much lower embedded energy, a smaller carbon footprint, than concrete, and you also get a much lighter system." Lighter, he adds, in every way: "in terms of thinking about the environment…in terms of material structure."
Of course, WCA's enthusiasm is not just theoretical. The principals hope that their conversations with designers and manufacturers elsewhere will nourish their labour back home in Canada.
Mr. Williamson explained: "What's exciting about these new wood technologies…is that they are being utilized [abroad] at really large, institutional scales. This is a work that, even as a small practice, we hope to get into. We're actively looking to expand the body of our work to a larger field, and we'd love to do so through the lens of our own interest in technology."
(More actively than other architects I talk to, the WCA team is busy with using, and even inventing, very sophisticated computer-assisted strategies for designing, assessing and producing architecture. The designers look forward to meeting European and Asian young people who, like themselves, combine optimism about the things computers can do for architecture and excitement about the practical potential of wood.)
Mr. Williamson readily admits that he and his partners have a lot to learn about wood, which is exactly the reason they are going to places where the use of industrial-strength forest products in large-scale contemporary architecture has been a focus of research and successful experimentation for some years. "Although this is new terrain," Mr. Williamson told me, "we are looking to find our place within it."