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REPORT: Building the Case for Tall Wood Buildings

In conjunction with the Timber City exhibition at the National Building Museum, a forum looks at the appeal for timber framed buildings at heights of six to fourteen stories, at a time that Philadelphia is seeing many multi-story multi-family wood framed buildings going up in developing neighborhoods.


Building the Case for Tall Wood Buildings

1/30/2017, David Lynn and Peter Burley

Taller buildings constructed mainly of wood are an inexpensive, attractive, and environmentally friendly option, but current building codes in the United States make them hard to build, said a panel of architects and engineers speaking in October at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

“Mass timber buildings”—where most, if not all, of the structural elements of a building are made of wood—have slowly been gaining acceptance. Despite wood’s reputation as “little sticks,” as Hans-Erik Blomgren of Arup initially described it, wood can in fact support buildings as high as 15, 18, even 30 stories—leading some observers to dub these new structures “plyscrapers.”

But almost all of the mass timber buildings built or under construction are outside the United States, because building codes have not yet caught up with the research.

“My boss at my first job out of school called it termite food,” Blomgren said. “It decays, it burns, it shrinks, warps, and twists. All these issues are out there that on first blush you question the ability of the material to work for you.” And yet, “every year or two, a new building’s being built” of wood.

Blomgren, along with Christopher Sharples of SHoP and Thomas Robinson of LEVER Architecture, came to the Building Museum in conjunction with the museum’s Timber City exhibit, which shows off how this very old material is transforming cities.

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