Tall wood buildings: Surveying the early innovators

Timber has been largely abandoned as a structural solution in taller buildings during the last century, in favor of concrete and steel. Perkins+Will's Rebecca Holt writes about the firm's work in surveying the burgeoning tall wood buildings sector.

August 25, 2014 |
Perkins+Will’s Ideas + Buildings

The Earth Sciences Building at the University of British Columbias Vancouver campus. Photo: Martin Tessler

As designers, we are custodians of the built environment. With the pressure to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings, it is our responsibility to carefully consider the environmental impact of our work, balanced with the functionality and cost considerations of every project.

As a firm dedicated to innovation and advancement of sustainable design, Perkins+Will has been a strong advocate for the use of wood in buildings for the many benefits it affords. Wood is the only building material that is made by the sun, completely renewable, and able to absorb and sequester carbon throughout its lifetime. In addition, wood is a healthy material choice; it creates a special quality of space, contributing to a feeling of warmth and well-being and supporting exceptional building performance.

While timber used as structure is certainly not unusual in low-rise construction, it has been largely abandoned as a structural solution in taller buildings over the last century, in favor of heavier and more intense materials, concrete and steel.  

Now, with the relatively recent advent of engineered, mass timber products, such as cross laminated timber (CLT) and laminated veneer lumber (LVL), buildings can now safely reach heights beyond four levels with lower environmental impact.

The Perkins+Will building portfolio has always prominently featured wood. Recently, we completed the Earth Sciences Building (ESB) on the University of British Columbia’s Vancouver campus in which we used engineered mass timber products for structure on the five-story academic wing, demonstrating the potential for building higher with wood.  As one of only three examples of modern, taller wood construction in North America, the ESB project has become an important example of the potential of mass timber products in major construction projects in our market, and it is now part of a small group of relatively recently built projects around the world that have successfully completed taller wood buildings.

Last October, on the heels of the Earth Sciences Building, we were awarded the opportunity to conduct a survey among leading stakeholders around the world to gather lessons learned and to document experiences in building tall wood projects. Forestry Innovation Investment and the Binational Softwood Lumber Council engaged our research team to visit built projects and to speak directly to building owners, designers, builders, and authorities having jurisdiction.  

The goal of the work was to gather information from the market leaders to learn from their applied experience to help reduce risk and accelerate adoption of tall wood buildings. It was an extraordinary opportunity. We traveled through Europe to visit the projects and speak with designers, constructors, timber fabricators, developers, and authorities about their experiences. Not only did we benefit from their wealth and depth of knowledge, but we were able to view the buildings, experience the spaces, and understand the context of the projects first hand.  

In addition, we have now established contacts and relationships with many of the stakeholders, which has proven to be an invaluable result of the work as we continue to expand our knowledge and practice.  

The result of this work is documented as the Survey of International Tall Wood Buildings, which includes a series of bulletins for each participant project, detailing lessons learned in the context of each stakeholder group. Each of these bulletins formed the basis of the Summary Report where the information is aggregated and interpreted at a broader level to identify trends across projects, unique solutions and,  of course, lessons learned. 

While there have been several important technical resources published recently to support tall wood building, this work is key to filling a gap in the literature: it is the first time lessons have been gathered among the majority of built examples, and have been cross-referenced and aggregated to identify trends and common themes.  While the results are not surprising, it solidifies and gives additional credibility to the efforts of advancing the market for tall wood buildings.

Explore the report to learn why these successful projects chose to pursue a wood solution, the best practices and lessons learned for designing, constructing, and navigating the approvals process, as well as the issues to consider with respect to insurance and financing tall wood projects. The report concludes with a section on building performance, demonstrating the important link between low carbon and low embodied energy materials, healthy indoor environments, and energy efficiency in operation.

This important work was possible only because more than 50 participants generously responded to our survey, hosted us at their buildings, spent hours touring and answering questions, and shared technical documents and images of their work. We truly appreciate their willingness to share their experience and time with us.

About the Author

Rebecca Holt is a Senior Sustainable Building Advisor and researcher with Perkins+Will’s Research team. She has been consulting on a variety of work related to sustainability concepts and high performance building design for more than 12 years. She contributes to community energy plans, sustainability plans and policy, green building strategies, indicator and benchmarking programs, and sustainable land use plans. Holt was the lead researcher and primary author of the Survey of International Tall Wood Buildings. She can be reached at: [email protected].

 

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Perkins+Will is a firm of remarkable people who are driven by discovery – through their relationships, research, and design. In the simplest sense, our ideas are the precursors for all of our design work. Ideas + Buildings, Perkins+Will’s blog, features emerging thought leadership from across the firm, inviting an even greater global dialog around learning, wellness, workplace, sustainability, and everything in between. Visit the blog at: http://blog.perkinswill.com.

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