Has the Wooden Skyscraper Revolution Finally Arrived?

In a particularly interesting thread the other day, featuring a great podcast recommendation, a discussion popped up between @Dumpster Fire Yuppie" , calculatedrisk , and I about CLT/GluLam/"Heavy Timber" construction (and also I discovered there are people out there who like brutalist architecture, which was...unexpected.)

Low and behold, an article came out yesterday about Mjøstårnet, an 18-story apartment, office, and hotel tower that became the world's tallest timber building when it opened last year.

The record-breaking feat was realized thanks to a type of engineered wood called cross-laminated timber, or CLT. Part of a larger group of materials known as mass timber, it is produced by gluing strips of laminated wood together at 90-degree angles to one another, before they're compressed into huge beams or panels under extreme pressure.

A slew of new timber high-rises is set to break ground or open in 2020. HoHo Vienna, a mixed-use development just five feet shorter than Mjøstårnet, has just opened for business in Austria. And while Europe has traditionally led the charge, North America is quickly catching up.

In Vancouver -- a city already home to a 174-foot-tall wooden student residence -- the Pritzker Prize-winning architect Shigeru Ban has designed a "hybrid" condo complex comprising a steel and concrete core with a timber frame that will open this year. Meanwhile in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, work on a 238-foot wooden apartment block, Ascent, is set to begin in June.

Here in America, we have typically been height restricted when it comes to Heavy Timber, although the method has become more popular in recent years with high profile projects like Hines' T3 project in Atlanta and similar developments from the company in Minneapolis and Chicago. Still, there is hope for more relaxed regulations in the near future.

The latest update to the International Building Code (IBC), which many countries and US states use as a base model for their own regulations, will allow timber buildings to rise to 18 stories for the first time. The decision is significant given that, before 2018, when Oregon became the first US state to allow 18-story wooden buildings, nowhere in America permitted anything higher than six.

The changes will come into effect in 2021 -- though they are only advisory. Some countries, such as Norway, already have looser height restrictions in place, while other countries and US states may opt for tighter building codes than those outlined in the IBC.

In my discussions with some people involved in these types of projects, at the moment Heavy Timber is approximately 10%-12% more expensive than concrete, but are able to be built much faster, saving developers money on interest during construction and getting tenants in the building paying rent earlier than usual. Additionally, these buildings are better for the environment (assuming they are sourced from sustainable forests), which is a positive thing for the planet and also a great marketing tool.

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Comments (10)

Feb 18, 2020 - 12:57am

I've actually talked to a PM at a top 10 architecture firm about this. He says he thinks it needs to get picked up in the design process by some powerhouse architects (ex. Gensler) with the help of lobbyists in major cities, then it will follow elsewhere. We talked about this several months ago, interesting stuff.

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Feb 16, 2020 - 5:09am

Not fully. CLT is promising, but I think we still have a ways to go until it is widely implemented across the world. Implementation issue include acceptance by people (that it won't burn) and politics around the concrete/steel industries dominating construction. I'm truly advocating for it, but we need to see how many of the full wooden skyscrapers planned actually get built

Feb 17, 2020 - 4:56am

I'm completely interested in CLT. It has a great story. However, my group is heavy with institutional money and I can't see us being first movers or even early majority. Really looking forward to seeing how this all fleshes out.

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Feb 18, 2020 - 10:55am

The concept of CLT is exciting but I wouldn't call it a revolution. Self driving cars and AI are revolutions. CTL is a headline grabber that will eventually just be another building material option. How do you know it's faster to build with CLT than steel or concrete? That's a real game changer if it's the case and prices come down.

Feb 18, 2020 - 11:06am
How do you know it's faster to build with CLT than steel or concrete?

Speaking with the people involved. If it was more expensive AND slower or just as fast, it would be far harder to justify.

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Feb 18, 2020 - 12:14pm

From a sequencing perspective it's significantly faster to perform timber work than any other structural members that you mentioned.

The volume that you can execute offsite with prefab members, not needing to wait for curetimes and concrete breaks, the more common and lower cost skillset vs steel, the lower weight foundation requirements, all of which affect schedule to execute the work.

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Feb 18, 2020 - 12:42pm

As long as the long-term durability questions are answered positively, I don't see any reason why CLT material costs wouldn't drop significantly. As of now, CLT cost reductions are driven because panels can be prefab'd with significantly cheaper labor than a welder or even a skilled carpenter doing new projects monthly. Once the cost of material goes down due to more optimized manufacturing processes, I see the overall costs following the trend. We've gotten pretty darn good at planting trees over the years.

I think the safety and risk aspect is the biggest issue with CLT at the moment, and as soon as we get proof of safety concept, the market will be able to aggressively shift towards CLT. Builder's risk is significantly higher and i'm assuming that property insurance is also higher due to the lack of track record. I have no actual data from European insurers, but I wonder if there's a trend of significant decrease of insurance costs on their side of the pond over the years. While it may not be a perfect risk indicator, i'm operating under the assumption that insurance guys are pretty good at what they do with the vast amounts of data at their disposal.

One of the unfortunate things about real estate/construction is that you'll never have proof of concept until years later; the errors are often catastrophic. People used to die all of the time with building failures and construction accidents. The amount of risk that the present is able to stomach, for better or for worse, reduces the speed in which progress occurs when compared to the past.

Mar 14, 2020 - 4:29pm

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