Wooden High-Rise Trend Reaches New Heights in Norway

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Mjøstårnet, an 18-story mixed-use tower constructed from engineered wood products, stands as one of the tallest buildings in all of Norway. It overlooks Mjøstå Lake, Norway's largest lake. (Photo: Erik Johansen/AFP/Getty Images)

The wonderful world of superlatively tall wood buildings has just gained its newest title-holding champion in the form of Mjøstårnet (Mjøsa Tower), a handsome timber high-rise in the Norwegian town of Brumunddal topping out at 18 stories.

Rising 280 feet (85.4 meters) above Lake Mjøsa, Norway's newly minted tallest-timber-tower-in-the-world isn't really all that tall in the scheme of things. It's shorter than Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty, the Louisiana State Capitol and my grandmother's old apartment building in downtown Seattle. It's also 100 feet shorter than the world's tallest woody perennial, a coast redwood hidden away in a remote section of Redwood National and State Parks, a string of parks in California. Regardless, a height of 280 feet is still an accomplishment for historically high-rise-adverse wood construction.

No doubt that Mjøstårnet's reign as world's tallest timber building will be a fleeting one as work kicks off on a number of increasingly high-reaching wood towers — often dubbed "plyscrapers" although none are technically skyscrapers — across the globe, each lankier than the next. (Here's hoping that the moment when the tallest building constructed from wood surpasses the height of the tallest living thing composed of wood doesn't go unnoticed.) Currently, plans are underway to build bragging rights-worthy tall wood towers in cities ranging from Tokyo to Milwaukee.

In September, forestry-heavy Oregon became the first state to codify its building codes to allow for tall wood buildings. The Beaver State's tall wood ambitions, however, suffered a setback when plans to build Framework, a much-anticipated mixed-use Portland high-rise that took a "forest to frame" approach to construction, were scrapped due to costs. It that would have been the tallest timber building in North America.

Up until Mjøstårnet was officially designated as the tallest timber building in the world by the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, the title belonged to Brock Commons Tallwood House, a wood-concrete hybrid high-rise dormitory that towers 174 feet (53 meters) over the campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. That's significant growth as far as timber towers go — more than a 100-foot leap from once tallest to new tallest. Also very tall are Treet, an all-wood apartment building in Bergen, Norway, standing nearly 161 feet (49 meters) tall and a 147-foot-tall (45 meter) wooden office block in Brisbane, Australia.

(As Lloyd Alter at sister site TreeHugger laments, the world's tallest timber tower naming game has gotten somewhat exhausting although, Norway, a country that's certainly known to get competitive when it comes to tall things, deserves this one.)

Mjøstårnet with construction cane
Encompassing over 121,000-square-feet, Mjøstårnet was constructed four stories at a time using largely prefabricated elements. (Photo: Peter Fiskerstrand/Wikimedia Commons)

Concerned about climate change, architects look beyond concrete

Largely popularized by Canadian architect and tall wood proselytizer Michael Green, multi-story timber buildings have been enjoying somewhat of an extended moment as architects and builders alike perk up to the myriad benefits of reaching new heights with engineered wood products including cross-laminated timber (CLT) and glue-laminated timber or, as it's better known, glulam.

Once deemed too expensive, technically infeasible and not at all safe, advances in construction technology and relaxed building codes have helped make quick-to-build timber-framed high-rises an increasingly attractive — although still more costly — option compared to tall buildings built from carbon-intensive concrete and steel. Infinitely more sustainable than their counterparts especially when responsibly forested materials are involved, innovative and aesthetically pleasing wood buildings permanently trap the carbon absorbed by the timber, helping to mitigate climate change. They're healthier buildings, too, with some architects noting that people tend to be more chill when working or living in wood-framed edifices due to the sylvan associations. Mass timber buildings just feel better.

"The connections people have with wood cannot be underestimated," Tim Gokhman, director of the development company behind the aforementioned wood high-rise in Milwaukee, explained to The New York Times in January.

As for Mjøstårnet, project architect Voll Arkitekter refers to the structure as "a signal building, both in the way it stands out in the landscape, but also in its sustainable architecture. Pushing the limits on what's possible with using wood as material for taller buildings or plyscrapers. Signaling that we are serious about our responsibility in fighting the climate change."

Norwegian forest
For every tree cut down to produce the engineered wood products used to construct Mjøstårnet, at least two new trees were planted. (Photo: Anti Hammar/Moelven)

Noting that concrete is the second most used substance in the global economy behind water and one of the world's largest single sources of greenhouse gases, The Guardian recently zeroed in on the potential of engineered wood products as an alternative to a "universal commodity that has underpinned our modern life for centuries."

As Fiona Harvey writes:

Making buildings from wood may seem like a rather medieval idea. But there is a very modern issue that is driving cities and architects to turn to treated timber as a resource: climate change.
Using wood is not straightforward. Wood absorbs moisture from the air and is susceptible to rot and pests, not to mention fire. But treating wood and combining it with other materials can improve its properties. Cross-laminated timber is engineered wood, made from gluing layers of solid-sawn timber together, crosswise, to form building blocks. This material is lightweight but as strong as concrete and steel, and construction experts say it can be more versatile and faster to work with than concrete and steel — and even, it seems, quieter.

It's true that there's nothing quite as dazzling as a new, shiny, ultra-modern glass skyscraper. But cloud-brushing towers made from wood are the buildings poised to dominate city skylines in the future.

Rune Abrhamsen of Moelven looking at Mjøstårnet
Rune Abrhamsen, CEO of Moelven's glue-laminated timber division, glances up at the 280-foot-tall feat of engineering his company helped to create. (Photo: Moelven)

An 18-story tribute to engineered wood wizardry

Back in Norway, the town of Brumunddal — population: 10,000-ish — seems ready to enjoy its moment in the spotlight now that Mjøstårnet, the newly minted tallest timber tower in the world, has been completed. It's certainly been hyped enough.

Per Dezeen, the mixed-use lakeside building, which includes 32 rental apartments, five floors of office space, a restaurant and the aptly named 72-room Wood Hotel, is also, somewhat surprisingly, the third-tallest building in Norway. (It's unclear if structures including churches and radio towers count.) A large public swimming pool complex, also constructed built with engineered wood, is attached to the tower.

A structure where even the elevator shafts (!) are constructed entirely from CLT, Mjøstårnet's timber structural elements including glulam beams and columns were supplied and installed by leading Scandinavian wood products firm Moelven.

"We want to create a sustainable future using wood, explains Moelven CEO Morten Kristiansen in a press release. "The Mjøstårnet project is yet another proof of what is possible to build with timber, and we hope that this building will inspire others to choose more sustainable and climate-friendly solutions in the years to come."

A strict adherence to hyper-locally grown and processed timber helps to explain why such an ingeniously built and designed structure — essentially a shrine to the marvels of engineered wood — was constructed in a small town tucked away in the predominantly rural county of Hedmark and not in a major Norwegian city such as Oslo, Bergen or Trondheim where it might have greater exposure.

Mjøstårnet on opening night
With an arboreal-themed hotel nestled in its middle floors, Mjøstårnet, pictured here on opening night, is a new destination for a sleepy but highly scenic region of Norway. (Photo: Moelven)

Brumunddal, as it turns out, is a major regional hub for forestry and wood processing and appears to be positioning itself as a sort of Wood Mecca on the Norwegian tourism circuit. After all, while it appears that the countryside surrounding the town is absolutely stunning, there's not a whole lot going on in Brumunddal aside from primo lake fishing. (Elsewhere in the Hedmark region, you'll find the world's longest modern timber bridge designed to support full traffic loads.)

"In the same way that the Eiffel Tower signifies Paris, Mjøstårnet will signify Brumunddal," the Visit Norway website quotes property developer Arthur Buchardt of AB Invest as saying.

"The tower will produce the same amount of energy that it spends," Buchardt adds. "This will be achieved through solar thermal energy, solar cell panelling and heat pumps directed at both earth and water. This whole project will demonstrate 'the green shift' in practice."

This is all impressive stuff. It's worth repeating, however, that the good people of Brumunddal better savor their newfound fame while they can given that are plenty more of the world's tallest timber towers (sorry, Lloyd) on the horizon.

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