Wood Buildings Are Back, and the New York Times Is on It!

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interior wood

And whatever you do, don't read the comments.

There is a hilarious twitter feed I follow,@nytonit, short for The Times is on it! "Because sometimes stories in newspapers are just that obvious." The recent article by C. J. Hughes in the New York Times real estate section, Log Cabins? No, These Wooden Buildings Are High-Rises is a great candidate for it, from its first line on: "Developers have not used wood for much other than houses since the horse-and-buggy days. But the knotty building material is making a comeback," followed up with "For those who expect wooden buildings to resemble log cabins, the current crop may come as a surprise."

exterior from corner

© Ema Peter via V2comNothing is important until it comes to New York, and mass timber is just arriving there, so this is a good introduction to the subject. However, it does note that wood buildings are very popular with tenants in flyover country that got it earlier. Hughes describes T3 in Minneapolis, designed by Michael Green and built out of Nail Laminated Timber (NLT);

Nail-laminated timber fortifies T3, a three-year-old, seven-story office building in Minneapolis’s North Loop neighborhood. Eighty-two percent of the steel-clad building, whose name is shorthand for “timber, technology and transit,” is leased to tenants like Amazon, which occupies three floors.

There is also co-working company Industrious, which had an easier time renting space here than in its other more conventional buildings. A founder noted: “It’s almost like walking into a Swedish sauna,” he said. “It’s incredibly beautiful.” The article concludes with words from developer Jeff Spiritos, who says, “I feel so strongly about the environmental imperative of changing the way we build for the health of the planet.”

Don't read the comments!

But hilarity ensues when you read the comments. Two years ago, when the Guardian covered mass timber construction, I wrote a whole article covering the comments section, addressing issues of deforestation, fire, CO2 storage, glues, and more. The New York Times comments address all the same questions and raises some new ones, so I will address a few of them.

One of these stick built firetraps burned down in Tucson while it was under construction. It melted the construction crane, melted cars parked across the street and damaged another apartment building. There's a youtube video of one burning down in Texas. That's all they are, tinder boxes.

wood is fireproof dimensions image

Stick built construction is not heavy timber or mass timber. There have been many construction fires of lightweight stick frame buildings and a few significant fires in completed buildings, which depend entirely on drywall and sprinklers for protection. Mass timber is different because of that word Mass. It is designed with an extra char layer. They are two completely different forms of construction. Even a fire Lieutenant couldn't figure this out and wrote "these 'pre-engineered' materials perform miserably when exposed to direct flame contact under fire conditions." Again, This is not lightweight stick-framing!

No old trees are available any more except those from tropical forests which are the lungs of the planet. So these wood buildings may be cutting down on the amount of oxygen available in the atmosphere.

The opposite is true. The wood is local, and is replanted, and increased the amount of oxygen and the new trees grow.

Construction industry leaders such as AISC and ACI (which are the steel and concrete construction chambers, respectively) have long advocated against the use of mass timber for high rises for the obvious reasons.

Well, they would, wouldn't they? Kind of seems like they have a vested interest.

Like so many current trends affecting consumer products, wooden buildings are great for everyone but the end user - the horrific sound transmission alone makes them uninhabitable (there is a reason violins and piano sounding boards are wooden).

clt wall

CLT wall/CC BY 2.0

Mass timber buildings usually have concrete poured on top and have better sound ratings than steel or some concrete buildings.

This is all new to people, and there are many misconceptions. It is also new to architects and builders, and there is a learning curve to everything. Perhaps in a few years, when a few more buildings are built in New York, we won't get the "log cabin" titles and the inane comments.