Sumitomo Forestry

Material exploration is expanding design capabilities, creating new opportunities for housing. Using different materials can mean lower costs, better performance, and more design flexibility. Here, The Week explores how wood frames are going higher, helping create housing in more dense urban areas.

Building skyscrapers out of wood: It sounds bizarre, unsafe, maybe even a bit twee. But it could actually be the future of construction.

"Each material has its different pros and cons, and there's no reason that timber shouldn't be part of that larger discussion," Todd Snapp, an architect with the global firm Perkins + Will, told The Week. "I can't say it's better than steel or concrete. I can say it should be just as relevant in the discussion of what material to use."

Snapp is the design principal guiding the firm's River Beech Tower project, an 800-foot residential skyscraper that would be built almost entirely out of wood. The tower was designed in parallel with a master plan the firm was awarded to develop an area in Chicago's downtown, on the east shore of the river and just west of Grant Park. Cambridge University's Natural Material Innovation project then came to them with the notion of doing a wooden skyscraper. The idea was they would pick a real-world site and then develop the building from the ground up: As the architects fleshed out the project, that would give the Cambridge group specific structures, practices, and so forth to test out in the lab. "We wanted the research to be tied to some sense of what's immediately achievable," Snapp explained. "Ground it in reality. Let's have a real site."

Granted, River Beech Tower remains purely conceptual — a collection of designs and models, with no actual plans yet to build it. But the point of the project was to prove the idea could work.

Nor is it the only such effort. Similar plans are underway in London, Stockholm, and other cities. Eighteen-story buildings made of timber already exist in Vancouver and Minneapolis, while other structures have popped up in Norway and New Zealand.

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