Building the Future: How BIM and Digitalization Are Transforming the Construction Industry

… or how the tale of the three little pigs could change forever.

Part 3

You can read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series of posts on industrialized construction in wood.

“The glass and steel skyscrapers that have contributed so much to global warming no longer have a place in our city or on our Earth.”

This was the sentence pronounced by Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York in July 2019, and published by the NY Times. While this did not align with municipal policies as aggressively as his words, it marks a global trend.

There is now a widespread consensus on the benefits of constructing buildings with technical wood, and that’s why new projects with a strong environmental footprint are emerging worldwide, adding to this new way of thinking, building, and living in these structures.

Among the numerous projects executed recently, we can highlight the London architecture studio, Waugh Thistleton, a pioneer in using CLT to construct a multi-story building. Until 2009, CLT had only been used for “beautiful and simple two-story houses,” says A. Waugh. However, now they have come up with a nine-story apartment block with a gray cladding called Murray Grove, the first project of a tall urban residential building constructed entirely with prefabricated solid wood. From load-bearing walls and floor slabs to stair and elevator cores.

The same studio is working on the world’s largest residential building, Dalston Works. Delivered in 18 months and completed in 2017, the 10-story development with its 121 units made entirely of CLT addresses the dual challenge of London’s densification and the environmental impact of constructions.

Located on a vacant site, the varying ceiling heights and brick facade seamlessly integrate with neighboring Victorian and Edwardian-style homes.

The efficiency and low weight of the construction system made it possible to increase the number of units by 25%. The low weight of the wooden structure, 155,000 m2 in total, allowed for a much taller result than would have been feasible with traditional methods.

In addition to these two examples, starting from the experimental “tall wood” model generously shared under Creative Commons by Michael Green and his initial proposals PMX35 (35 stories) and later adaptations for seismic zones PMX 15 (15 stories) medium height, examples of how to build low-carbon buildings have been developed in different parts of the world.

In the United States and Canada, where the construction tradition and limitation for buildings over 10 stories condition growth, a regulatory shift is taking place. Meanwhile, in Europe, where buildings mostly reach up to six floors, they are incorporating this more smoothly. As an example, there are projects within European “green” initiatives aiming to create three prototypes for a complete model evaluation and knowledge replication.

Regulatory changes, like the 14 amendments to the International Building Code that increase the allowed height of solid wood construction to 80 meters, governmental policies promoting wood design like the Green Construction Through Wood Program “GC Wood” providing funding for wood-intensive projects or those using innovative wood products and systems in Canada, or the Wood4Bauhaus initiative in Europe promoting wood construction as the primary weapon against climate change, have acted as catalysts for innovation in this field.

Examples of buildings already changing skylines worldwide

1. Mjøstårnet, Norway

The first building worth mentioning is the Mjøstårnet building in Norway, inaugurated in March 2019, the same year as the statement by Bill de Blasio. It is the tallest wooden building in the world. Its name translates as “Mjøsa Tower,” referring to the lake where it stands. The construction is 85.4 meters high and 18 stories tall, featuring a mixed-use program of apartments, offices, a hotel, and a restaurant. The Norwegian studio MVRDV designed it, in collaboration with the Norwegian firm [re]structure, and the name derives from the near location of the biggest Norwegian Lake Mjøsa.

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The Brock Commons Tallwood House at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, held the title of the world’s tallest timber tower before Mjøstårnet. Completed in 2017, it stands at 53 meters (174 feet) and has 18 stories. The building is a student residence and accommodates over 400 students. It was part of a response to the growing demand for student housing on the Vancouver campus. This building showcases the potential of wood construction in high-density urban settings.

3. Origine, France

In France, Origine is a project that aims to be the tallest wooden tower in the country. The 17-story building is located in Strasbourg and is designed by Eckert-Ndesign. It represents a shift towards sustainable construction in France, aligning with the country’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Origine combines residential, commercial, and office spaces and sets an example for future urban developments.

Challenges and Future Prospects

While there is a growing enthusiasm for tall wood buildings and their benefits, challenges remain. Some of these challenges include:

1. Fire Safety: One of the primary concerns with tall wood buildings is fire safety. Although wood can be treated to improve fire resistance, ensuring the safety of occupants and preventing the spread of fire is crucial.

2. Building Codes and Regulations: Building codes and regulations need to be adapted and updated to accommodate the construction of tall wood buildings. This includes considerations for structural integrity, safety standards, and environmental impact assessments.

3. Public Perception: Overcoming skepticism and gaining public acceptance for tall wood buildings can be a challenge. Addressing misconceptions and educating the public about the safety and sustainability of wood construction is essential.

4. Technology and Innovation: Continued research and innovation in wood-based construction technologies are necessary to optimize the structural performance, energy efficiency, and overall sustainability of tall wood buildings.

Despite these challenges, the future prospects for tall wood buildings are promising. The benefits of wood as a renewable and sustainable material, along with advancements in construction techniques and materials, position tall wood buildings as a viable and eco-friendly solution for urban development.

Conclusion

The tale of the three little pigs might need a modern-day update: one little pig builds a house of bricks, another of straw, and the third of sustainably sourced cross-laminated timber. As urbanization and the demand for buildings increase, the construction industry is faced with the challenge of creating structures that are not only functional and aesthetically pleasing but also environmentally responsible.

Tall wood buildings represent a paradigm shift in urban architecture and construction. By harnessing the potential of wood as a renewable resource, architects and builders can create sustainable, energy-efficient, and visually stunning structures that contribute to a greener future. As cities around the world embrace the concept of wooden skyscrapers, the tale of the three little pigs could indeed change forever, with the smart pig leading the way to a more sustainable and resilient built environment.

The examples of Mjøstårnet, Brock Commons Tallwood House, and Origine demonstrate that tall wood buildings are not just concepts but tangible realities. As technology, regulations, and public awareness evolve, the sky’s the limit for wooden skyscrapers.