2017: The year wood construction grew like a weed

wood buildings
© Various wood buildings

Because we are not called TreeHugger for nothing.

Looking back on 2017 it is hard to know where to start, there was so much happening. It's the year that wood construction really went mainstream, everywhere. We are not even going to discuss the fantasy projects, just the real stuff being built by real architects. Because we are past gawking at models and renderings, things are getting built!

Tallest wood-framed building in the Netherlands wins a WAN award

tub on balcony© FRANTZEN et al. © Luuk Kramer
We started the year with the Patch22 building in Amsterdam, which is a sort of hybrid building; the Catch22 of the Patch22 is that the floors are steel and concrete because they couldn't get around fire protection requirements at a reasonable price. But there's lots to love here with its Open Building concept. And really, what's not to love about a bathtub on the balcony? More in TreeHugger: Tallest wood-framed building in the Netherlands wins a WAN award

Social housing can be beautiful and sustainable, like the King's Road Affordable Flats

side louvres photo© Modece Architects
This is affordable housing. It's not new, but I missed it and I think it is wonderful. It had aged well too, as it gets overgrown with plants. Readers didn't agree, suggesting that it "looks like a stack of pallets." More in TreeHugger (and read the comments!) Social housing can be beautiful and sustainable, like the Kings Road Affordable Flats

Michael Green goes way beyond tall wood

The pioneer in Tall Wood came to the Toronto area and lectured a bunch of carpentry trainees, and described his vision of the future:
He envisions a future where instead of chopping trees into lumber which is then glued or nailed into mass timber, we 3D print it from wood fiber, in the shapes and forms that are most efficient structurally. Then all of the wood fiber will be used and there will be no waste, either on the forest floor or in the building itself. We will not only build using trees, but will build like a tree.
More: Michael Green goes way beyond tall wood

Multipurpose building is a flexible wooden wonder

I just loved this building because of the way it worked -- a cross between traditional Japanese architecture with moving walls and La Maison du Peuple built in Clichy by Jean Prouvé with Beaudouin and Lods. All in glorious wood.
We playfully call these transformer buildings today, but in fact they have a history that goes back hundreds of years. Aki Hamada has taken a prosaic program and turned it into an architectural gem, a wooden wonder.
More: Multipurpose building is a flexible wooden wonder

Dalston Lane: The world's largest Cross-Laminated Timber building

Lloyd and Andrew Lloyd Alter and Andrew Waugh in Dalston Lane/CC BY 2.0
Now we are getting into some seriously interesting and big buildings, some of which I even see personally, like Dalston Lane. And it is not all about looks:
...the reasons for using CLT are prosaic: it is a lot lighter, a fifth the weight of a concrete frame, so it doesn't need deep pile foundations, which would have been problematic with a new Crossrail subway line going underneath. It goes up a lot faster, and in real estate development, time is money. Because the CLT has a bit of insulation value, it needs less additional insulation. Because the CLT buildings have more wall and less column, there is less infill framing. So that overall, the cost often ends up being less than building with concrete.
More: Dalston Lane: The world's largest Cross-laminated timber building

Vitsœ's new headquarters show how great modern architecture is a team sport

dining area© Dirk Lindner
Back when TreeHugger started we would show just about any LEED Platinum or Gold building; then they became more common and we became more discriminating, showing only the most interesting or drop dead gorgeous specimens. Now we are getting beyond just building in wood, and seeing some seriously gorgeous buildings that change how we think of the material. This one is just remarkable, a factory for Dieter Rams' furniture that I think is an example of his design principles. More: Vitsœ's new headquarters show how great modern architecture is a team sport

Designed to be relocatable, this prefab wood building is so nice it's not going anywhere

I think this might be my favorite wood building of the year, designed to be cheap and cheerful and temporary, but that is now staying put. "It has it all: patterns, views, daylighting and of course, our favorite material, wood." The use of mass timber products delivers a very high design outcome and the quality, visual appeal and atmosphere of highly engineered, clear finished, treated timber is very warm and supportive of an excellent teaching and learning environment. These buildings are just so nice to be in; they work well for everyone.
More: Designed to be relocatable, this prefab wood building is so nice it's not going anywhere

Swimming pool in London is built out of wooden portal frames and Cross Laminated Timber

portal frame columns and light© Jack Hobhouse/ Hawkins\Brown via Dezeen
And finally, this, a swimming pool made from wood portal frames, usually used for economical construction and here, rendered in wood.
Portal frames work because they have very strong, rigid joints that transfer the bending moment from the rafters to the columns, which are often deep at the top and tapered as they get closer to the ground. At the Freemen's School in Ashtead, the columns stay the same depth all the way down, becoming a wonderful louvre feature that is used to support seating.
More: Swimming pool in London is built out of wooden portal frames and Cross Laminated Timber

Why wood? What wood? What technologies?

It was also a year when we started looking at why we are using wood and other natural materials, and at all the different ways of putting wood together.

Why we should be building out of sunshine

spec-board© Architype/ A low-carbon diet for green building
This is the first of a series of posts where I start looking at the importance of building in wood and natural materials, and the difference between different wood technologies. It is, for me, the underpinning of it all. And it isn't just about our buildings:
This is how it all rolls into a bigger picture -- how we have to build zero carbon buildings and get to them with zero carbon transportation, which really means designing our cities so that we can get around by walking, followed by bikes, followed by public transport. It’s all encompassing, about trying to live a carbon-positive lifestyle. We have to do this, and our buildings are probably the easiest place to start.
More will follow on this subject. Why we should be building out of sunshine

Why architects and designers have to choose woods responsibly

Grace JeffersLloyd Alter/ Grace Jeffers presenting/CC BY 2.0

Listening to Grace Jeffers talk about our forests made me start thinking about the way we are using wood now. Are we being careful enough? Sure, it is a renewable resource, but is what we are replanting as good as what we cut?

Here on TreeHugger and like much of the industry, we call wood a renewable resource. But Grace Jeffers notes that "Yes, we cut down trees, replant them, they grow, and in this way wood is a renewable resource. But by cutting down trees, we are destroying forests and their unique, unquantifiable ecosystems; therefore, a forest cannot be renewable."

More: Why architects and designers have to choose woods responsibly

What's the best way to build in wood?

Robot building wall© Randek

Solid CLT is wonderful, but after listening to Grace Jeffers, I began to wonder, does solid wood make sense, or should be be building like they do in Sweden, where they get incredible quality wood frame construction in factories and now, using robots?

There is a reason that America was stick-built; it is fast and cheap and material-efficient. But being site-built, it was sloppy and leaky. The new machines change all that. They bring wood framing into the 21st century, and they use about a fifth as much wood as CLT does.

Of course there is a place for both, but CLT and DLT and NLT are being used in places where wood frame could do the job. I concluded:

I believe that everything that can be built out of wood should be, but am beginning to think that you can have too much of a wood thing. I am really coming to wonder if CLT has not become too fashionable, when there are other, simpler wood solutions that use less material, save more forest, and build more homes.

Anthony ThistletonAnthony Thistleton/ Photo Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Anthony Thistleton and I talked about this when he was in Toronto and he responded with a long and thoughtful comment:

For most mid-rises the CLT is a structural necessity, certainly above six storeys. However the CLT also performs acoustically and thermally as well as providing fire resistance. All of these would require additional measures if we built in timber frame. We are happy that the CLT frame presents the most efficient use of material in the buildings we have completed.

But we are just getting started in this discussion. More: What's the best way to build in wood?

How Bensonwood builds a wall that works

Hans Porschitz with wallLloyd Alter/ Hans Porschitz with wall/CC BY 2.0

In search of the answer to this question, I visited the factory of Bensonwood, where they do both CLT and frame construction, and came away even more confused. Certainly if you are going to build in wood frame, this is how you should do it. More: How Bensonwood builds a wall that works

Students move in to the world's tallest timber tower

Brock Commons Detail© Naturally Wood
It really was a remarkable year, with the world's tallest timber tower, Brock Commons Tallwood House, opening for business. No doubt it will be overtaken very soon, as architects and wood engineers keep pushing the envelope. If I can make some predictions for the coming year:

  • Dowel-Laminated Timber (DLT) and Nail Laminated Timber (NLT) will be used more and more instead of CLT because of cost and competitive pressures.
  • The race to be the tallest building will run out of gas, and wood will mostly be used for medium height buildings, say up to 15 floors, the "missing middle" kind of buildings.
  • We will see a lot more of the European-style high quality wood frame construction in low-rise buildings.

But we will also see a lot more wood. See all our stories on Wood Construction here.

Related Content on Treehugger.com