Reaching New Heights In Vancouver, two sites are under consideration for a 20-story tower made with mass timber.
Courtesy Michael Green Architecture Reaching New Heights In Vancouver, two sites are under consideration for a 20-story tower made with mass timber.

Codes in the U.S. allow wood-framed structures up to five stories, but wood accounts for only 12 percent to 15 percent of mid-rise construction, according to Cees de Jager, executive director of the Binational Softwood Lumber Council (BSLC).

“There is a real gap in the conversation [among architects] about one of the three main building products” along with concrete and steel, he says.

As a result, the BSLC, Parsons The New School for Design, and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) have launched a design competition, called Timber in the City, to encourage students and recent graduates to give greater consideration to using renewable resources that “offer expedient affordable construction ... and provide healthy living/working environments,” according to the program’s website.

Entrants will use wood as their primary structural material to design a mid-rise, mixed-use complex with affordable housing units. The project site is in Red Hook, an evolving neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y.

A design jury will convene in July and award winning teams with cash prizes of $30,000. The projects will be exhibited at the ACSA’s annual meeting in Miami and AIA’s 2014 convention.

De Jager hopes this contest also inspires builders and architects to initiate taller wood-built projects. In attendance at the contest’s launch ceremony were two architects who are at the forefront of that movement: Andrew Waugh, whose firm designed an apartment building in London with eight floors constructed from cross-laminated panels; and Michael Green, a Vancouver, British Columbia–based architect who in February published a 200-page tome advocating taller wood buildings with mass timber panels engineered for strength.

“To slow and contain greenhouse gas emissions and find truly sustainable solutions to building, we must look at the fundamentals of the way we build,” Green wrote in his paper, “from the bones of large urban building structures to the details of energy performance. We need to search for the big-picture solutions of today’s vast climate, environmental, economic, and world housing needs.”

In Vancouver, British Columbia, where six-story wood-framed structures are allowed, Green says two sites are under consideration for a 20-story wood tower that he believes could meet code on a performance basis. He explains that he would like to see the emergence of “innovation zones” in the U.S., where cities could experiment with taller wood buildings. Otherwise, code evolution could take five to eight years, “and as we see this as a climate-change discussion, we can’t wait that long.”

There are still many skeptics who doubt taller wood-framed buildings are feasible domestically, some of whom point out that building codes in Europe and elsewhere are more conducive to that kind of construction. But de Jager is optimistic that wood buildings as tall as 16 to 20 stories eventually are possible in the United States. In fact, he says his group has already spoken with a leading architectural firm in Chicago about exploring the construction of taller wood structures.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: New York, NY.