It's now 130 years since the first skyscraper was built by American engineer William Le Baron Jenney in Chicago in 1884. The 10-storey tower was built on such an innovative model, exchanging solid brick walls for a spindly metal frame inside the building, that Chicago city authorities actually stopped construction until they knew that it was safe.
Now, 130 years later, a new paradigm shift is expected to take place in the world of high-rise construction. A new generation of engineers and architects are turning to one of man's earliest building materials to construct our most modern buildings. That's right: they're starting to build skyscrapers out of wood.
This isn't as crazy as it sounds on first consideration. While untreated beams of wood simply aren't strong enough to hold up the huge weight of high-rise buildings, a type of super-plywood has been developed to step up to the challenge. By gluing layers of low-grade softwood together to create timber panels, today's so-called "engineered timber" is more like what you'd find in Ikea flat-packed furniture than traditional sawn lumber. We've even got a nice moniker for the new breed of eco-friendly building: "plyscrapers".
So why even bother? Well, the construction industry isn't the greenest of industries out there. China is reckoned to be topping off a new skyscraper (500ft or taller) every five days, using more concrete since the millennium than the United States used in the Twentieth Century. In the UK, construction accounts for almost 7 per cent of the economy (including 10 per cent of total employment), and 47 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions are generated from buildings. Not only that, but 10 per cent of CO2 emissions come from construction materials, and a shameful 20 per cent of the materials used on the average building site end up in a skip.
So when is this pie-in-the-sky idea going to come into play? In fact, it's already well underway. London is the proud home of one of the world's tallest wooden buildings (The Stadthaus, at nine storeys), with the 10-storey Forte Building in Melbourne just pipping it to the post.
In Europe, a 14-storey wooden building is currently under construction in Bergen, Norway, with another eight-storey structure on its way up in Dornbirn, Austria – the prototype for a planned 20-storey plyscraper designed by engineering firm Arup. Even a construction giants like SOM – the architects behind One World Trade Centerand the Burj Khalifa – are reportedly considering using wood for high-rise construction.
Vancouver-based architect Michael Green is the biggest evangelist for wood as a building material of the future. Green is giving away his hefty, 200-page instruction manual, The Case for Tall Wood Buildings, free of charge.
In the manual, he makes the case that wood, even when cut down and mashed up into a plyscraper, continues to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – as much as one tonne of CO2 per cubic metre of wood. That means a 10-storey building can absorb 1,600 tonnes of carbon, while a concrete building of the same height is responsible for as much as 600 tonnes.
So will we start cutting down all the trees in order to build this next generation of skyscrapers? You might think that doesn't sound very green – but a new technique has found a way to use trees damaged by pine beetles, for instance. This means wood that would otherwise be thrown away can be put to good use again in the construction of new buildings. Trees can also be grown in nurseries, absorbing carbon from the atmosphere as they grow – which is much greener than the process of creating steels and concrete.
What do you think? Will wooden plyscrapers dominate the skylines of tomorrow? Let us know in the comments section below, or stop by for a chat with the ITProPortal team and other readers on ITProPortal's tech talk live chat.