Urban jungle: wooden high-rises change city skylines as builders ditch concrete

  • 2015-12-15
  • The Guardian

The concrete jungle has a rival: forests. Two urban building projects, in New York City and Portland, Oregon, will be changing their city’s skylines with an environmentally sustainable, cost-competitive building material. The key ingredient? Wood.

Called mass timber, the material is an umbrella term for large, solid chunks of panelized wood. When used in buildings, the benefits are sky high: flexible, strong, fire resistant and carbon-sequestering. Mass timber could prove to be a viable alternative to concrete and steel for mid-to-high rise buildings.

The two projects in question were nationally recognized last September when each was awarded $1.5m from the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Tall Wood Building prize, a competition that sets out create America’s first modern mass timber building, reaching 80ft or higher.

Moreover, the USDA is looking to these projects to mitigate climate change and support jobs in rural America.

The winning proposals are 475 West 18th Street, a 10-story residential condo in Manhattan’s West Chelsea neighborhood, and Framework, a 12-story mixed-use building slotted for Portland’s Pearl District.

The Manhattan building – a project of 130-134 Holdings LLC, in partnership with Spiritos Properties, Arup, and ShoP Architecture – will be New York City’s first to use mass timber systems.

And apart from building specs, “Spaces that utilize wood in a significant way have been shown to have considerable psychological benefits for the inhabitants, from reduced hearts rates and stress levels to improved productivity,” said Amir Shahrokhi, project director at SHoP.

Portland’s Framework – designed by Lever Architecture and in partnership with developer project – will incorporate offices for landowner Beneficial State Bancorp, ground floor retail space, and affordable housing for area median income tenants. The building will be constructed primarily from cross-laminated timber (CLT), a nation’s first.

Out of the mass timber initiative, CLT might prove to change the construction paradigm.

Essentially, CLT is plywood (actually invented in Portland in 1905) on steroids. It’s manufactured by layering panels of 2-ft-by-6-ft lumber at 90-degree angles, then literally gluing them together on their wide faces.