The Case for Making Cities Out of Wood


EXCERPT: . . . The idea of future wood cities has been hanging around for at least a few years. In 2014, for example, the Boston Globe wondered, “Will cities of the future be built of wood?” The rise of both human population and global temperature prompted much of the interest in the sustainability of city-scale timber construction. By 2050, we will number almost 10 billion; and since two-thirds of us will be city dwelling—up from just over half in 2014—cities will have to grow. It’d be ideal to do that without curtailing efforts to combat climate change; it wouldn’t be helpful, for instance, to keep extracting and transporting the raw materials needed to build steel and concrete structures, which are more expensive and have large carbon footprints. Wood, on the other hand, is “a plentiful resource that grows back relatively quickly, and even pulls carbon out of the atmosphere as it does,” the Globe noted. Yugon Kim, an architect passionate about timber construction, said, “We all are hard-wired to see the city as being steel, glass, and concrete. Our proposal is that we need timber to save us.”

The proposal hasn’t been ignored. [...] The main obstacle to this outcome—what a 2016 paper called “a full timber building renaissance”—is the public’s fear of city fires, which has been reflected over centuries in construction codes globally. Some researchers, like Alastair Bartlett, at the University of Edinburgh, see in these obstacles an “opportunity,” as he wrote in a 2017 study, “to revisit compartment fire behaviour and to quantify the impact of these new construction technologies on the compartment fire dynamics.”

Bartlett, along with some colleagues, tested the sort of wood mid- and high-rise buildings—like Framework, in Portland—have recently been made out of [...] The room with an exposed wall and ceiling managed to “auto-extinct”—the fire went out by itself. [...] He wants to do many more experiments because it’s still not clear how, in mass timber buildings, to get compartment fires to reliably burn out on their own, a “cornerstone of fire safety engineering design,” he writes....


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