Wooden skyscrapers could be the future of cities around the world

The development of engineered timber could herald a new era of eco-friendly ‘plyscrapers’. Christchurch welcomed its first multistorey timber structure this year, there are plans for Vancouver, and the talk is China could follow.

When American engineer William Le Baron Jenney designed the world’s first skyscraper in Chicago in 1884, no one believed in his unconventional technologies. His lightweight steel frame relieved a structure of its heavy masonry shackles, enabling it to soar to new heights. Perplexed by this trade-in of solid brick for a spindly steel skeleton, Chicago inspectors paused the construction of the Home Insurance Building until they were certain it was structurally sound.

Of course, Jenney’s revolutionary edifice provided a blueprint for city skylines across the world. By 2011, China was reckoned to be topping off a new skyscraper (500ft or taller) every five days, reaching a total of 800 by 2016. Toronto, now North America’s fourth largest city, currently has 130 high-rise construction projects under way.

Chicago's Home Insurance Building, widely considered to be the world's first modern skyscraper.

Chicago’s Home Insurance Building, widely considered to be the world’s first modern skyscraper. Photograph: Chicago History Museum/Getty Images

As a result, buildings are slowly choking the atmosphere. In Britain, where the construction industry accounts for almost7% of the economy (including 10% of total employment),47% of greenhouse gas emissions are generated from buildings, while 10% of CO2 emissions come from construction materials. Furthermore, 20% of the materials used on the average building site end up in a skip.

So just as Jenney’s steel-frame solved the issue of the dense, stunted buildings in the 19th century, architects and engineers are now seeking new ways of building taller and faster without having such a drastic impact on the environment. And that has seen them revisit the most basic building material of them all: wood.

Although wood in its raw form could not compete with Jenney’s steel-frame wonder, a type of super-plywood has been developed to step up to the challenge. By gluing layers of low-grade softwood together to create timber panels, today’s “engineered timber” is more akin to Ikea flat-packed furniture than traditional sawn lumber, and offers the prospect of a new era of eco-friendly “plyscrapers”.

For Vancouver-based architect Michael Green, the sky is the limit for wooden buildings. While nearing completion of the University of Northern British Columbia’s Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George, Green’s practice, MGA, has also drawn up plans for a 30-storey, sun-grown tower for downtown Vancouver.

If built, Green’s vision would be easily the world’s tallest wooden building, soaring past the current contenders – London’s Stadthaus at nine storeys, and the 10-storey Forte Building in Melbourne. But that’s not the main motivation, according to MGA associate Carla Smith. “To be honest, it’s not like we really care about being the tallest,” she says. “We really do see a wooden future for cities, and our aim is to get others to jump on board too.”

Arts & Media Building in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology arts and media building under construction in Nelson, New Zealand

Green is giving away his hefty, 200-page instruction manual, The Case for Tall Wood Buildings, free of charge. He hopes it will inspire architects and engineers to branch out beyond their concrete and steel confinements, and embrace a material that sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, holding it captive during its growth and lifetime in a structure – one tonne of CO2 per cubic metre of wood. To put that in context, while a 20-storey wooden building sequesters about 3,100 tonnes of carbon, the equivalent-sized concrete building pumps out 1,200 tonnes. That net difference of 4,300 tonnes is the equivalent of removing 900 cars from the city for a year.

But while timber advocates such as Green hope to to sow the seeds of change in the minds of policymakers worldwide, building regulations still put a low-rise lid on the height of timber buildings. This is based on wood’s historic reputation as kindling for a great city fire: in London, Chicago and San Francisco (to name just a few), roaring fires have ravaged city streets, wiping out great swathes of grand architecture and razing urban history to the ground. But while the classic timber-framed city of 1870s Chicago was gone in an instant, today’s engineered timber develops a protective charring layer that maintains structural integrity and burns very predictably – unlike steel, which warps under the intense heat.

The rigidity of mass timber panels has tended to restrict architects to a “house of cards” design, whereby panels are slotted together and stacked on top of one another in repetitive patterns. But new innovations are coming thick and fast: theUSDA recently announced a $2m investment for wood innovation, and in the previously scorched city of Chicago, mega-firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrillpublished a study that re-imagines the 42-storey Dewitt Chestnut apartment block as a timber tower. In Europe, a 14-storey wooden building is currently under construction in Bergen, Norway, with another eight-storey structure on its way up in Dornbirn, Austria – the prototype for a 20-storey plyscraper designed by the global engineering firm Arup.


Arts & Media building in Christchurch, New Zealand

The finished NMIT arts and media building

One other important breakthrough came in British Columbia, a Canadian province half-covered in forest. Since 1996, more than 16m hectares have been destroyed by North America’s native mountain pine beetle, which releases a blue-staining fungus into the wood, halting the flow of nutrients and water and the killing the tree.

The province faced the prospect of billions of these dead lodgepole pinestriggering a huge release of carbon dioxide – until a means of using this undesirable blue-stained lumber for building was realised. British Columbia promotes its use through the Wood First Act, passed in 2009, which requires all new, publicly financed construction projects to first consider wood as the primary building material.

The most prominent example is Vancouver’s 2010 Winter Olympic ice rink, the Richmond Oval, which features massive glued-laminated timber arches of beetle-ravaged wood. Building regulations are now loosening up in Canada, reflecting the recent successes of the country’s wood use. Last month, Ontario raised the cap on timber structures from four storeys to six, just as British Columbia did in 2009.

But perhaps the most promising realisation of wood’s worth is in New Zealand, where the violent earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 left almost one third of the Christchurch’s buildings – including 220 heritage sites – up for demolition. Almost four years on, the city’s grand rebuild has begun, and wood has taken a step into the spotlight due to its durability in high-seismic activity zones. The “new” Christchurch, as outlined in the Central Recovery Plan, is proposed to be a low-rise, “greener, more attractive” city costing around NZ$40bn (£19bn), almost 20% of the country’s annual GDP.


Detail of the Merritt building in Christchurch, New Zealand.

A detail of the Merritt building in Christchurch’s central business district Photograph: PR


Andrew Buchanan, professor of timber design at the University of Canterbury, sees a growing interest in the use of wood in Christchurch’s rebuild. “When it first happened, people were scared of concrete and masonry buildings,” he says. “Wood was seen as a very desirable and very safe alternative.”

Earlier this year, Christchurch welcomed its first post-earthquake, multistorey timber structure – the Merritt building in the city’s central business district. The structure uses a “post-tension” technology – the brainchild of Buchanan and his colleagues – where timber is lashed together with steel tendons that act like rubber bands, allowing the building to snap back into place following any seismic movement. And recently, the Southern Hemisphere’s first engineered timber factory opened up in Nelson, producing timber panels for flat-pack cities across the globe.

In China, Arup is currently working to educate engineers on the use of wood. With even a superfirm like SOM – the architects behind One World Trade Centerand the Burj Khalifa – considering using of wood for high-rise construction, the industry finally appears ready to grasp its full potential.

Several of SOM’s buildings are in Chinese cities (the 71-storey Pearl River Building in Guangzhou, and the 88-storey Jin Mao in Shanghai, for example), so perhaps their Timber Tower could take root there too? “Judging from the speed that the Chinese usually adopt new technologies,” says Arup director Tristram Carfrae, “this really won’t take very long!”

This article was amended on Monday 6 October 2014. The NMIT arts and media building is in Nelson, not Christchurch

Building a cleaner tomorrow

Air pollution causes one out of eight of all deaths around the world. That’s 7 million people every year.

Lung cancer, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, asthma… All of these diseases are the result of our poor air quality.

So what’s causing all this pollution?

One simple thing: coal. The coal we burn to power our cities. The biggest consumer of all that burnt coal?


Buildings consume 47% of all the energy we produce. And commercial buildings are responsible for 84% of that consumption.

In 2014, 54% of the population lives in urban areas. By 2050, the United Nations estimates that close to 6.5 billion people will live in cities. We will need to build enough to accommodate all that urban population.

You get the picture:

Our cities are literally chocking us to death.

And this is not a problem that’s limited to very polluted countries like China or India. You see, 75% of the air in the US can be directly traced back to Asia. That air takes roughly 6 days to arrive from China and then another 6 days to get to Europe. Wherever you are in the world, you are constantly being fed new polluted air.

There’s a simple solution to that: make our buildings consume less energy.

But how do we do that? You’re probably sitting there thinking that you, as one tiny little human in our vast society, don’t have that much power over the way our buildings work.

So how does it work?

You write down the information of the building you live or work, say what you think could be done and submit your request for a retrofit.

Seeder will get in touch with the property owner or manager, do an audit, suggest some ideas to make your space cleaner and healthier and recommend vendors that can come and do the work. If possible, we’ll even provide financing.

You get lower energy bills, cleaner indoor air and a better carbon footprint and your landlord gets a building that a more attractive building that has a higher value.

It’s that easy.

And still, you’re completely unconvinced by this idea. Fine, fine… Let me give you an example then:

Does this look familiar?

The Empire State Building underwent an energy retrofit a couple of years ago. They changed their windows, lighting and ventilation system. They now save 4.4 million dollars a year on their energy bills and got a guaranteed payback of under five years.

And… This iconic structure now emits the equivalent of 21000 planes less CO2 per year than it used to. That’s a whole lot less pollution for New York City.

Get started with clean energy today and use our calculator to find out how much you can save with solar PV on your roof. We’ll take care of the rest.

And if you want to know more about what buildings do to the environment and how we can fix it, follow us on twitter: @seederenergy

Nine creative use for shipping containers

1. Firm: NL Architects
Project: Barneveld Noord Bus Station, Netherlands
Standout: The Dutch firm used four shipping containers to construct a bold structure—complete with a waiting area and cafe—designed to make travel less stressful.

2. Firm: GAD Architecture
Project: Trump Cadde, Istanbul
Standout: Located in the Trump Towers Mall, this roof-terrace market redefines the notion of a food court. Twenty-five units house food vendors and shops, creating an urban interpretation of the city’s legendary bazaars.

3. Firm: distill studio
Project: The Box Office, Providence, Rhode Island
Standout: Twelve colorful office and studio spaces were created using 35 recycled containers on the site of an abandoned lumber yard in the Olneyville neighborhood. The efficient building uses just 25% of the energy consumed by a conventional office building.

4. Firm: Inhouse
Project: Ninety9Cents, Capetown, South Africa
Standout: The advertising agency’s double-decker reception area references the nearby harbor and provides a vibrant and comfortable lounge for clients.

5. Firm: North Arrow Studio and Hendley | Knowles Design Studio
Project: Container Bar, Austin, Texas
Standout: Seven recycled containers, each with unique interiors, are stacked and arranged around a central courtyard at this new watering hole, located on hip Rainey Street.

6. Firm: bof Architekten
Project: Bharati Antarctic Research Station, Antarctica
Standout: The Hamburg, Germany–based firm utilized 134 cargo containers wrapped in an insulated shell for this self-sufficient facility commissioned by India’s National Center for Antarctic and Ocean Research. The building can be disassembled and removed without any impact on the environment.

7. Firm: Envelope A+D
Project: Proxy, San Francisco
Standout: A 25-foot-high vertical conveyor belt is the centerpiece of the Aether Apparel store in Hayes Valley. The building is composed of three 40-foot containers, and is a part of Proxy, a temporary village of shipping containers.

8. Firm: Platoon Cultural Development and Graft Architects
Project: Platoon Kunsthalle
Standout: The global arts and culture organization conceived the three-story structure in the Mitte district as an experimental space to accommodate exhibitions, performances, and events.

9. Firm: Tsai Design Studio
Project: Vissershok Primary School, Cape Town, South Africa
Standout: Located just outside the city in Durbanville, this rural school features a bright refurbished-shipping-container classroom to accommodate 25 five and six-year-old students. A canopy roof protects the building from direct sunlight and an adjacent green wall shields the play area from wind.

Building the World’s First Carbon-Neutral City

Masdar City, near Abu Dhabi, boasts green buildings, a fleet of electric cars and massive solar arrays. But will the experiment work?

The oil-rich Emirate of Abu Dhabi is well aware that someday the crude will stop flowing. What then? In a rather epic attempt to get ahead of their own future, the powers that be are hard at work building and promoting Masdar City, an ambitious self-contained renewable-energy experimental city designed by Foster and Partners and rising in the desert 11 miles from downtown. Now in its sixth year of development, the city, which is being managed by local conglomerate Masdar (with significant backing from the government), is well underway. As an experiment, it’s fascinating. As a viable hunk of commercial real estate, however, the jury is still out.

With one million square meters (247 acres) developed so far—about 15 percent of the master plan—and 4,000 residents in place, Masdar City is no small undertaking. Its “greenprint” is meant to demonstrate how a city can rapidly urbanize while simultaneously managing energy, water and waste, never forgetting that while “sustainable” is nice, it has to be commercially viable to remain sustainable for the long term.

The glass at the Masdar Institute Campus is shielded by terracotta grills. (Masdar City)Nearly all of the electricity in the current phase comes from a massive 87,777-panel, 10-megawatt solar plant along with building-mounted solar panels, and demand is kept in check by an impressive array of design features that minimize the need for air conditioning despite the desert locale. The site is higher than the surrounding land to catch breezes off the Persian Gulf; the short streets are narrow and laid out to maximize shade all day long; building glass is shielded by decorative terracotta grills; and a 45-meter wind tower pulls breezes from above and pushes them through the streets to create a cooling effect. The result: temperatures that the developers claim are generally 15 degrees cooler than the desert.

Nearly all of the electricity comes from a massive 87,777-panel, 10-megawatt solar plant along with building-mounted solar panels. (Masdar City)As for water, the goal is to recycle 80 percent of the wastewater generated by sinks, baths, showers and even dishwashers and washing machines as “greywater”meant for multiple re-use. All buildings must meet the equivalent of LEED Gold certification—a rating awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council—and use sustainable palmwood whenever possible. Interestingly, there are neither faucet handles nor light switches in the city. Everything is motion-activated.

One casualty of design revisions forced by the 2008 financial crisis were the Logan’s Run-style driverless travel pods that would have buzzed around the city. Instead, a fleet of electric vehicles has been deployed for now, but the main goal is to make the compact city as walkable and bikeable as possible, completely eliminating the need for fossil fuel-powered transportation.

As the city slowly rises around Masdar’s Institute of Science and Technology, which specializes in energy and sustainability, other tenants include the International Renewable Energy Agency, Siemens, General Electric and Mitsubishi. Together, they employ a few thousand residents, but the ultimate $20 billion plan, which may not be achieved until 2025 (if at all), is to accommodate 40,000 residents and 50,000 daily mass-transit commuters.

The big question: will Masdar City ever stand on its own financially, making it replicable in places where billions of government dollars aren’t readily available? It looks like we won’t know for at least another ten years, but in the meantime, architects and urban planners can certainly borrow the best ideas from this pricey sustainable playground and leverage them for worldwide benefit. Just be sure to bring along some extra water for the bike tour in case the breezes aren’t blowing.

This article was originally published by the editorial team at XPRIZE, which designs and operates incentivized competitions to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity.

The newest Passive House building

Courtesy of 

Setting new standards of sustainability through the design of the Passive House “Bruck”,Peter Ruge Architekten’s project is a model apartment complex, consisting of 36 one room staff flats, 6 two room executive suites and 4 three-bedroom model apartments currently being built in southern China. With a 95% energy savings over that of a conventional Chinese residential building, the project is the first housing of its kind to be realized in the countries damp, warm, southern climate. Construction just began last month and is expected to be completed within the upcoming months. More images and architects’ description after the break.

Courtesy of Peter Ruge Architekten

This design approach plays a central role in the future strategy of recognized Chinese real estate development group Landsea.  The company’s plans to establish a research and development center in  acts to test, improve and implement innovative, energy saving and sustainable building practices in China.

Courtesy of Peter Ruge Architekten

Peter Ruge Architekten planned model apartments so that Chinese families, interested in the benefits of sustainable housing, could be provided with an opportunity to temporarily reside in the building. Through this direct experience, prospective clients are able to gain their own understanding of passive house living has to offer, as the building demonstrates maximum comfort and quality of residence. This aims to reduce any prior reservations had towards the success of passive house design in extreme weather conditions.

Courtesy of Peter Ruge Architekten

The local climate has shaped the impression of the facade: triple glazed window units have been specifically used in all private rooms and common areas, whilst fixed sun shading elements protect the glass facade in the warmer half of the year. The closed areas of the highly insulated facade act to protect the building shell from intense sunlight through a screen of colored terracotta rods.

1st floor plan

Peter Ruge Architekten, together with their client Landsea, and in cooperation with engineers from the German Passivhausinstitut Dr. Feist, have achieved an important architectural milestone through the design of Passive House “Bruck”, and the successful introduction of sustainable and future-oriented passive house standards to the Chinese residential housing market.

Architects: Peter Ruge Architekten
Location: Changxing, Zheijang Province, China
Team: Peter Ruge, Kayoko Uchiyama, Matthias Matschewski, Jan Müllender, Alejandra Pérez Siller, Duan Fu
Structural Engineering: Shanghai Landsea Building Technology Co. Ltd
Mechanical and Electrical Engineering: Shanghai Landsea Architecture Technology Co. Ltd
Thermal Structural Physics: Passivhaus Institut Dr. Feist
GFA Building: 2,200 sqm
Duration: 2011-2013
Completion: 2013