Surrounded by farmland and with a population of under 10,000 people, the Norwegian town of Brumunddal might seem like an unlikely setting for a record-breaking high-rise.
But soaring above the neighboring Mjøsa lake, more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) north of Oslo, the 280-foot-tall Mjøstårnet tower became the world’s tallest timber building when it opened last year.
The 18-story structure contains apartments, office space and the aptly named Wood Hotel. And beyond putting a small town on the world map, it has added to a growing body of evidence that timber can provide a sustainable alternative to concrete and steel.
Reaching 280 feet in height, Mjøstårnet became the world’s tallest timber building upon opening last year. Credit: Voll Arkitekter AS / RicardoFoto
“To get attention, you have to build tall,” said Øystein Elgsaas, a partner at the architecture practice behind the record-breaking tower, Voll Arkitekter, in a video call.
“And when you have the world’s tallest building made of timber, everybody says, ‘Wow, what’s going on in Norway?’ “
“People are interested, and that is actually the most important part of this building — to showcase that it is possible, and to inspire others to do the same.”
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.
The resulting wooden towers — sometimes dubbed “plyscrapers” — were once the preserve of conceptual designers. But thanks to changes in building regulations and shifting attitudes towards the material, they are quickly becoming a reality.
The tallest tower of the HoHo Vienna project in Austria reaches up to 276 feet. Credit: HoHo Vienna / Michael Baumgartner / KiTO
Advocates for mass timber claim that, compared to existing options, these towers are quicker to construct, stronger and, perhaps most surprisingly, safer in the event of a fire. It may, however, be their green credentials that explain wood’s rising popularity in recent years.
Designed by Acton Ostry Architects, the University of British Columbia’s student residence Brock Commons Tallwood House, in Vancouver, stands at 174 feet tall. Credit: Acton Ostry Architects/Michael Elkan
“Trees store carbon, so if you harvest them at the right age when they can’t absorb much more or grow much further, then it’s a better solution to use them as a building material,” said Elgsaas, adding that, if buildings are designed with longevity in mind, they could keep the carbon out of the atmosphere for generations. “It prolongs the trees’ lifespans (before they decompose) by maybe 100 or 200 years, if done correctly.”
Cross-laminated timber has been used for low-rise buildings in European countries like Germany and Austria since the 1990s, and the environmental benefits of using mass timber have long been known.
So why the recent surge in interest?
A digital visualization of a 35-story prototype timber building, Proto-Model X, developed by Michael Green Architecture and Sidewalk Labs. Credit: Sidewalk Labs/Michael Green Architecture
As mass timber becomes increasingly common, more CLT factories are built and economies of scale reduce prices.
“There’s more knowledge in the marketplace, more competition, more supply chains … At the time of my Ted talk there was no real infrastructure,” Green said over the phone. “Incrementally, as were seeing more competition, the cost is coming down.”
However, the cost of cross-laminated timber has fallen in recent years and is now “at par” with traditional materials, Green said. Likewise, Elgsaas reported that the developer behind Norway’s Mjøstårnet tower found the final sum to be “about the same” as a steel and concrete alternative.
A prefabricated panel is lifted into place during the construction of Brock Commons Tallwood House in Vancouver. Credit: Acton Ostry Architects/Pollux Chung
But savings can be found in other ways, he said in a phone interview. In particular, the ability to prefabricate, or factory-build, wooden components means that other construction costs may fall.
“If you can make it quicker and open the building quicker, you don’t need to loan the money for as long and can get a return on investment quicker,” said Oldfield, who also authored the 2019 book “The Sustainable Tall Building: A Design Primer,” adding: “What we’re finding is driving timber is less the sustainability benefits, and more the benefit to the contractors and clients.”
For Green, the real tipping point will come not when timber is just as cheap — but when it’s cheaper.
“We’re not at the point where (timber is) cheaper,” he said. “And we want it to be cheaper because, at the end of the day, that’s what governs the entire industry — the cheapest solution.
“We have to solve climate change by making things more affordable, not by asking people to suck it up and pay more, because it doesn’t work.”
A digital rendering of PLP Architecture’s bold proposal for a 984-foot-tall tower in the heart of London. Credit: PLP Architecture
But while these architects clearly believe in mass timber’s structural potential, there remain very practical barriers to the realization of such projects: building regulations.
The changes will come into effect in 2021 — though they are only advisory. Some countries, such as Norway, already has looser height restrictions in place, while other countries and US states may opt for tighter building codes than those outlined in the IBC.
And there remains limited data about how large wooden towers will respond, in the long-term, to a variety of risks, from extreme weather to termites and damp.
Supporters of mass timber, however, contend that it’s not only safe — it’s actually preferable, as wood burns in a more predictable way.
The main tower of the Sara Cultural Centre in Skellefteå, Sweden, will become one of the world’s tallest mass timber structures when it opens in 2021. Credit: White Arkitekter
Green compares mass timber to a big log placed on a campfire — it doesn’t catch light immediately, and it burns slowly once it does.
“In a big catastrophic fire, generally, if you ask firefighters to go into a heavy timber building versus a steel building, they would much rather go into (the former),” he said. “Because although the beams are charred, they can quickly tell how much char, and therefore how much leftover wood, there is.”
Regulations invariably lag behind technology, Elgsaas added, with each completed tower helping to ease concerns around efficacy and safety.
“The more buildings we see that push the limit, the easier it will be to propose new building codes and raise the bar on what’s possible,” he said.
With shifts in regulation, will come a transformation in cultural attitudes toward wood, Green argues. While a move to timber architecture could represent the most fundamental change in how we construct skyscrapers since the early 20th century, in places with long tradition of wooden buildings, such as northern Europe or North America, it may be less a revolution and more a renaissance.
“We used to build big, giant wood buildings in North America and around the world, but we really stopped when concrete came about,” Green explained, adding that large city fires dampened enthusiasm for the material. In the 1840s, the decade that reinforced concrete was invented, New York, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and Toronto were all devastated by blazes that quickly spread through densely-packed timber-frame buildings.
“There were some big city fires, and naturally we said, ‘Well, let’s not build with combustible materials any more’ (…) We knew we could build these big buildings, but we just stopped talking about it.”
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In hyper-modern cities with little history of building with wood, like Shenzhen or Dubai for instance, there may be limited enthusiasm about its return. Winning developers and architects over, Green argued, should revolve around what he sees as timber’s design advantages.
“Reframing the notions of what modernity is, what forms should be, what makes people more comfortable and what makes the quality of space better, has to be related to human issues — of feeling less stressed, being healthier, being more productive, learning quicker,” he said. “These have to be the defining principles of good design.”
Elgsaas also attests to the psychological benefits of wood. He describes Mjøstårnet’s exposed wood columns, with their organic appearance and differing grain patterns, as possessing a certain character that uniform concrete simply can’t achieve.
“The people living, staying and working there say it feels much cleaner, in a way,” he said.
Despite growing enthusiasm for wooden high-rises, long-term environmental challenges remain. For one, if mass timber is to deliver its purported carbon savings, the trees used must be sourced from sustainable forests, said UNSW’s Oldfield.
“If CLT is going to be a major building material for us in the next 30 years, we need to start planting the trees now,” he added. “We looked at how much timber we would need if, by 2050 say, 30% of new buildings were made from CLT — and we’re talking about growing a brand-new forest of 100-by-100-kilometers.
“And there are big questions about whether you should even build forests like that, as they are mono-cultures, whereas natural forests have biodiversity.”
Japanese company Sumitomo Forestry plans to spend 600 billion yen ($5.6 billion) to build a 1,148-foot-tall wooden skyscraper in 2041 to mark its 350th anniversary. Credit: Sumitomo Forestry Co., Ltd.
Oldfield’s research also raises another long-term question that needs addressing: What happens to the sequestered carbon when the building is eventually knocked down, even if it’s decades or centuries later? And does this negate the benefits of using the material in the first place?
“If you bury the timber elements and they decompose — or if you burn the building at the end of its life — you leak that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere,” he said.
Tackling these questions are for the years and decades to come. For now, however, it appears that cost-shy developers are considering the material’s many possibilities. Architect Elgsaas said timber proved itself the best fit for Mjøstårnet — but he keeps an open mind about how the skyscrapers of the future might be built.
“I’m not taking sides — I’m not pro-wood, or pro-concrete,” he said. “I think it’s important that we use the right material for the right job.”
This article was updated with details of Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto project.