Five years ago, when I last interviewed architect Michael Green, he had not yet built a tall wood building. In fact, there were not many of them anywhere, but Michael had just written the book on it with the very long title: THE CASE FOR Tall Wood BUILDINGS: How Mass Timber Offers a Safe, Economical, and Environmentally Friendly Alternative for Tall Building Structures.
What a remarkable five years it has been. Now wood buildings are going up all over the world, with hundreds more of them on the boards. Michael Green has been busy, speaking in thirty countries, building in cities all over the world.
He was in the Toronto area recently for the Tall Wood Symposium, reminding the audience that the entire industry is a mess: “Affordability, safety, climate change, environment, practice, all at a level of existential crisis.” If we are going to deal with climate change, “It is all about moving away from carbon intensive building materials and moving to carbon sequestering materials.” However the biggest challenge is not the engineering or the materials- it is us.
The problem is not the science but the challenge of changing peoples opinions about what is possible. The challenge we have is moving from emotion to science. We can build like this, we just have to recalibrate our imaginations.
One of the main benefits of mass timber construction is that it combines a great renewable material with the benefits of prefabrication; panels are cut in the factory and assembled on site. This brings the industry into line with other manufacturing practices. (I bold-face my favorite line in the talk)
The construction industry is broken but not enough that people want to fix it. Construction is the last craft, everything else is built in a factory everything else has been systematized. Designers work in a room and contractors work in the rain. To anyone outside our industry it makes no sense.
It is time to move beyond and change it. As a craft industry we are dealing with weather, timelines, cost, skills, inaccuracies, errors, and every building we do is essentially a prototype. We have to move from individual project thinking to system thinking.
The system thinking is coming faster than we know; new companies like the startup Katerra are investing many millions in building new factories that will turn out Cross-Laminated Timber panels at lower cost and in far less time than conventional buildings. The company is still in stealth mode judging by its website, but we will try to dig up more information in another post.
Michael Green notes that we cannot lose sight of sustainability; he envisions tracking timber from seedling to system, end to end with a lot of technology in between to ensure that the wood is grown sustainably and used efficiently.
By the end of this talk it was clear that Michael Green has moved well beyond just building wood towers, but is thinking about the future of the entire industry, about “Design, construction, policy, markets, ownership, environmental impact.” He is setting up a school to teach about sustainable building (DBR | Design Build Research) and an online version, TOE (Timber Online Education) that is “a platform that can galvanize change in the way we construct our built environment.” He’s a busy guy.
But wait, there’s more. A few of us were invited by Mike Yorke, one of the directors of the the College of Carpenters and Allied Trades, and head of Carpenters Local 27, for a tour of the school. Here, Michael Green talked to a classroom full of carpenters in training, off the cuff with no slides, and it was fascinating. When he started drawing a salad on the whiteboard to explain about why wood building is healthier I grabbed my iPhone, hence the abrupt start; Michael does a great explanation of why building with wood is green:
He goes on to explain what CLT is, and why he prefers to build entirely out of wood instead of in composites with concrete or steel.
But if you really want to get your mind blown, Listen to Michael’s vision of the future of wood construction, which he started talking about after the lecture to a student asking why we don’t use more hemp in construction; watching this and you might think he is smoking hemp.
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.
When I visited architect Susan Jones’ house in Seattle, I was actually most impressed with this- Susan sent drawings from her computer in Seattle to a CNC cutter in Penticton, BC, where they cut a hole for a window imported from Latvia, that fit right in without the shims and the casing and all the stuff that goes into a typical window installation. I thought that this was the future of construction; in fact, Michael has been there, done that. Michael Green shows that we really are just getting started; we are entering a different world.