Although you can find wood buildings of considerable height in locales across the globe, most of these structures are limited to houses of worship and historic structures. They're not typically tall buildings found in dense urban settings — you know, residential high-rises, office towers and run-of-the-mill skyscrapers.
Once written off as structurally unsafe fire hazards with price tags too daunting to touch, high-rises built primarily or exclusively from timber — "plyscrapers" if you will — are having a moment. And you better keep an eye on them because like the majestic, life-giving perennials from which they’re sourced, these innovative edifices are slowly but surely increasing in height, so much so that’s it’s hard to keep track of which project is current title-holder of world’s tallest wood building. In the United States at least, it’s building codes that need to catch up to the trend.
Thanks to advances in technology and the rise in popularity of mega-strong, fire-resistant engineered wood products such as cross-laminated timber (CLT), tall timber buildings have emerged as an increasingly feasible — and vastly more sustainable — alternative to traditional high-rises built from concrete and steel. For one, the respective carbon footprints associated with tall wood buildings are relatively petite, making wood — particularly locally sourced and responsibly forested wood — an attractive and aesthetically pleasing choice.
Timber-framed buildings are also quicker and more efficient to build — a boon for developers working with tight time constraints. And although they once had a reputation as being more costly than carbon-intensive concrete and steel structures, plyscrapers are increasingly becoming more budget-friendly. What’s more, as Kevin Flanagan of London-based PLP Architects tells CNN, swapping out carbon-intensive concrete and steel for wood has mood-boosting psychological benefits: “People tend to feel relaxed around wooden buildings. People associate wood with green spaces, they have an affinity to it. There would be a real benefit to introducing wooden structures to the cities where people live.”
Added bonus in addition to the good, green vibes: You really can’t beat the novelty factor of living or working in a sleek 10-story-plus tower with floors, ceilings and even elevator shafts constructed from a carbon-sequestering renewable material.
Benefits aside, wood’s newfound popularity in building up is a curious but not entirely surprising one. Having been used for eons to erect structures of all sorts — from pagodas to pavilions, compact saunas to colossal airplane hangars to low-slung, balloon-framed homes of all shapes and sizes — wood can be thought of as a throwback building material for the future.
In celebration of wood’s growing presence in modern skylines across the world, here are illustrations and photos of 10 tall timber buildings — some all-wood, some hybrid; some commercial and some residential; some conceptual and some completed or under construction — worth shouting from the treetops about.
Baobab in Paris
From the “tall wood” wizards at Vancouver-headquartered Michael Green Architecture (completed North American projects T3 and the Wood Innovation and Design Centre also appear on our list), Baobab — presumably named after the fabled tree found across Madagascar and the African savanna — is an all-wood skyscraper project proposed for Paris.
Submitted in 2015 to the Reinventer Paris design competition seeking innovative infill ideas for a couple dozen different redevelopment sites spread across the city, Baobab, all potentially record-breaking 35 stories of it, would be a truly mixed-use development that (luxury and affordable housing, retail, community gardens and a bus depot) spans Boulevard Périphérique, a perpetually gridlocked ring road encircling central Paris.
If built, Baobab would sequester an impressive 3,700 metric tons of carbon dioxide — the equivalent of removing 2,207 cars from French highways for a year or heating a single home for 982 years.
“Our goal is that through innovation, youthful social contact and overall community building, we have created a design that becomes uniquely important to Paris,” says Green of the proposal which was conceived for the competition in collaboration with French real estate developer REI and Parisian design studio DVDD. “Just as Gustave Eiffel shattered our conception of what was possible a century and a half ago, this project can push the envelope of wood innovation with France in the forefront.”
Forté in Melbourne
Marketing Forté, a mid-rise luxury apartment tower in the Docklands of Melbourne, seems pretty effortless: “Forté is Australia’s greenest apartment building in Australia’s greenest precinct, in the most livable city in the world.” Sold.
What’s more, when the 10-story waterfront structure topped out in mid-2012, Forté – at a lanky at 32 meters (105 feet) tall – was able to claim bragging rights as the world’s tallest timber apartment building and the first major residential project in Australia to be built using the mighty-strong engineered wood panels known as cross-laminated timber or CLT. (Several years later, Australia’s first CLT manufacturing facility is now being built in the border region of Victoria and New South Wales.)
A beauty of a building comprised of 23 “boutique apartment residences” as well as a quartet of townhouses, Forté’s more immediate charms come in the form of communal gardens, built-in bike racks, natural light and proximity to shops, restaurants and public transportation. Again, it kind of sells itself pretty easily.
But as Murray Coleman of developer/designer Lend Lease explained to Architecture & Design back in 2012, Forté’s CLT construction, however less flashy or superlative-worthy, lends the structure itself formidable environmental cred: “Concrete and steel buildings are carbon intensive but timber, as well as being renewable, has the advantage of storing carbon. Timbers used are also sourced from certified sustainably managed forests. With the structure being built entirely from CLT, Forté will reduce CO2 equivalent emissions by more than 1,400 tonnes when compared to concrete and steel – the equivalent of removing 345 cars from our roads.”
HoHo in Vienna
With a couple of exceptions, Vienna is relatively light on modern skyscrapers. Instead, a colossal 19th-century Ferris wheel, a soaring Gothic cathedral and a 1960s-era concrete communications tower with a revolving restaurant up top define the prosperous European capital city’s distinctive skyline.
“Vienna is not a skyscraper city but innovation is part of our city and why not try new things,” Katrina Riedl, a spokeswoman for the Austrian People’s Party, told The Guardian in March 2015. Translation: There’s more than enough room for what’s anticipated to be the world’s tallest — and jolliest — wood skyscraper.
Construction on an 84-meter-tall (275 foot) holz high-rise dubbed HoHo commenced in October 2016 at Seestadt Aspern, a massive lakeside urban redevelopment project in northeast Vienna. When completed in 2018, HoHo will boast a hotel, apartments, office space and a wellness center along with some unique bragging rights: 2,800 metric tons of CO2 emissions will be curbed due to the fact 75 percent of HoHo is made from wood in lieu of concrete and steel.
“Wood is a natural choice in Austria, because more of it grows than is used,” architect Rudiger Lainer tells World Architecture News. “Wood is cost-effective, it saves resources, it has high acceptability and wood surfaces create a natural atmosphere in indoor spaces. We have developed a technical wood construction system that enables construction of tall buildings.”
All sounds good but Vienna’s fire department was initially taken aback when it first got wind about the construction of a 24-story wooden skyscraper in town.
“A few of us were upset because it was crazy to present an idea like this that has not been discussed with everyone yet,” Christian Wegner, a spokesman with Vienna’s fire brigade told the Guardian. “They have to carry out special tests on the correct combination of concrete and wood. We also want to develop a more fail-safe sprinkler system. I expect they will pass the tests but if they develop the building as they say they will, it will be a serious project.” Considering that construction kicked off this past fall, it’s safe to assume that all’s good.
Kulturhuset in Skellefteå, Sweden
There’s no argument that the most-buzzed-about wood construction project in Skellefteå, a mid-size city in northern Sweden best known for its gold mining and ice hockey fanaticism, is Stoorn — “The Great One.” In development for over a decade, Stoorn, if ever built, would be a massive laminate timber building in the shape of an elk. Yes, an elk. Perched atop Mount Vithatten and itself rising 150 feet into the sky, the mighty wooden moose has a restaurant, conference center, concert hall and museum in its belly. The antlers would serve as observation deck.
Another decidedly less conspicuous timber-framed structure associated with Skellefteå is the city’s new Kulturhuset, a 19-story high-rise that, when completed in 2019, will be home to a hotel and three-floor cultural center complete with the city’s main library, theater and a museum dedicated to the work of 19th-century painter Anna Nordlander. Designed by Scandinavian mega-firm White Arkitekter as the winning proposal in a 2016 design competition, the structure would be the tallest wood structure in the Nordic countries at 76 meters (250 feet). Yep, that’s 100 feet taller than the moose.
“A cultural centre in Skellefteå just has to be built with wood,” Oskar Norelius of White Arkitekter says. “We’re paying homage to the region’s rich tradition and we’re hoping to collaborate with the local timber industry. Together we will create a beautiful venue, open for everyone, which will both have a contemporary expression and timeless quality.”
While primarily made from prefabricated glue-laminate timber panels, the construction of Skellefteå’s impressive new cultural hub also includes steel and concrete for structural support, making this wood skyscraper more of a hybrid. Wrapped in glass, the views from the upper floors of Kulturhuset are sure to be nothing less than stunning considering Skellefteå’s wilderness-surrounded just-south-of-the-Arctic locale.
Oakwood Tower in London
London has a knack for bestowing its most imposing edifices with cheeky nicknames that pay homage to — but mostly poke fun of — their characteristic shapes. After all, what other city has a Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe), a Shard (formerly London Bridge Tower), a Walkie-Talkie (20 Fenchurch Street), a Prawn (the Willis Building); a Pringle (the Olympic Velodrome) and a Cheesegrater (122 Leadenhall Street) gracing its skyline?
Within the next several years, the almost King Kong-on-a-picnic-like quality of London’s ever-growing skyline (sadly, work on the “Can of Ham” next to the Gherkin appears to be stalled yet again) will become even more complete thanks to the addition of a slender timber tower that resembles an after-meal must: the “Toothpick.”
While still in the conceptual stages having been presented to Mayor Boris Johnson for approval in April 2016, if and when the 80-story Oakwood Tower is completed at the concrete-heavy Barbican complex, it would be not only be one of London’s tallest skyscrapers (second only to the Shard) but the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper at 300 meters (984 feet). Designed by PLP Architecture in collaboration with researchers from Cambridge University’s School of Architecture, the svelte new addition that’s been likened to a colossal dental hygiene tool would generate 1,000 new housing units while introducing innovative new construction methods to the British capital.
Michael Ramage, director of Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation, tells The Independent: “The Barbican was designed in the middle of the last century to bring residential living into the city of London, and it was successful. We’ve put our proposals on the Barbican as a way to imagine what the future of construction could look like in the 21st century. If London is going to survive it needs to increasingly densify. One way is taller buildings. We believe people have a greater affinity for taller buildings in natural materials rather than steel and concrete towers.”
Terrace House in Vancouver
Shigeru Ban, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect and humanitarian famed for making magic (and cathedrals) out of bamboo, recycled cardboard tubes and other natural materials, and the city of Vancouver, considered by many as the ancestral home of tall timber construction, are a match made in sustainable design heaven.
That said, it only makes sense then that Ban’s first Canadian project is set to be a cloud-brushing trapezoid apartment tower built largely — but not exclusively — from British Columbia-sourced wood. Despite being in the early conceptual stages, Ban’s Terrace House is already touted by developer PortLiving as “the world’s tallest hybrid timber tower” that will “set a new precedent for architecture and innovation not only in Vancouver, but around the world.” As of now, the tower’s exact height has not been announced nor has the number of new luxury residences that it will create.
Expected to rise along Vancouver’s ridiculously picturesque — and increasingly high-rise-studded — waterfront at Coal Harbour, the glass-clad Terrace House will feature a wood frame wrapped around a concrete and steel core. As Michael McCullough of Canadian Business notes, the presence of conventional/less sustainable building materials alongside locally sourced wood “may offend purists who tout the low carbon footprint of super-strong treated lumber compared to traditional high-rise building materials. But the hybrid design may itself represent a breakthrough for a market-driven project — moving beyond the us-versus-them dichotomy and simply incorporating wood into skyscraper construction for all the right reasons.”
Whatever the case, PortLiving has encouraged prospective residents and curious Vancouver-ites alike to think beyond materials and construction methods by placing this lovely quote from the inimitable Ban front and center on the project’s official website: “What determines the permanence of a building is not the wealth of the developer or the materials that are used, but the simple question of whether or not the resulting structure is supported and loved by the people.”
T3 in Minneapolis
Opened in November 2016 as the largest modern mass timber building in the U.S., T3 ("Timber, Technology and Transit”) is a forward-thinking tip of the hat to the Minneapolis of yore — a time when the Mississippi-straddling logging hub that was home to well over a dozen sawmills, all of them powered by the city’s industry-churning natural centerpiece: Saint Anthony Falls.
Although nothing like it used to be, forestry and lumber still maintain a huge economic presence in the Twin Cities. (Also, birling is still a thing.) In that regard, T3 acts as a seven-story reminder of the historic role that wood played in the creation of Minneapolis and how new innovations in the timber industry can propel the city into the (more sustainable) future.
A 220,000-square-foot commercial building located in the fast-growing North Loop neighborhood (aka the Warehouse District), T3 is likely the only modern office complex in the immediate area that could truly be mistaken for a centuries-old warehouse. The timber beams, industrial-sized windows and weathering steel cladding help T3 blend in and also respectively mimic its historic neighbors. It’s also likely the only for-lease professional space in town with a website that features an image of a young man straddling and smooching a tree. As the building’s official website states: “Sustainability is deeply ingrained in all aspects of the T3 design.”
Designed by Michael Green Architecture (MGA) with StructureCraft serving as engineer of record, the nail-laminated timber (NLT) structure was built with 180,962 cubic feet of sustainably forested wood (the trees themselves were killed by the mountain pine beetle), the use of which — in lieu of concrete, steel and other materials — has helped to halt 1,411 metric tons of CO2 emissions. In total, over 1,100 8-by-20-foot NLT panels were used to build T3 — an equivalent square footage to nine hockey rinks. (An equivalency that only a Canadian firm working on a Minnesotan project would make.)
Referring to T3 as a “gamechanger for the commercial building industry,” MGA goes onto note that while “alluding to historic buildings of the district, the T3 project will provide modern, clean, energy-efficient systems and technologies aimed at reducing the lifecycle carbon footprint of the project within its community.”
Trätoppen in Stockholm
While not the only wooden skyscraper to be proposed for Stockholm, Anders Berensson’s fanciful Trätoppen — Swedish for “treetop” — is certainly the most eye-catching as it juts out directly from the roof of a Brutalist parking garage that dates back to the 1960s. It is density-centric urban regrowth at its most literal: innovative and green new concepts budding directly from old but loveable concrete stumps.
Rising 33 stories above the existing seven-level parking garage, Trätoppen would be built from super-strong cross-laminated timber (CLT) and wrapped in a distinctive perforated wooden “number” façade that corresponds with each floor number. With 250 apartments spread across the new wooden tower, the old garage beneath would be converted into a retail hub filled with shops and restaurants and nary an automobile. “If we want to reduce the amount of cars in the city centre of Stockholm and at the same time make space for more housing without building on green areas, then replacing car parks with housing, shops and restaurants feels obvious,” Berensson explains. A lushly planted public terrace built on the garage’s roof would wrap around the base of the high-rise.
Commissioned by the Stockholm Center Party, it’s unclear if Berensson’s number-clad conceptual CLT skyscraper will ever be built. If someday it is, Trätoppen would be Stockholm’s tallest building at 133 meters (436 feet), inching out the Scandic Victoria Tower (120 meters) and the Kista Science Tower (117 meters).
And about those giant numbers … “From the outside, one can count the floors by reading the facade and from the inside you will be reminded what floor you are on just like in the parking garage,” says the architect. “This is a useful feature given that the skyscraper will be the highest in the city centre of Stockholm. The facade also has some practical benefits and acts like a sun screen, which keeps the building cool and energy efficient.”
Treet in Bergen, Norway
One might suspect that a Norwegian apartment building named “The Tree” would somehow involve a hefty amount of wood in its construction.
And indeed, Treet in Bergen is a veritable 14-story bonanza of Norway-sourced engineered wood product with several hundred meters each of glue-laminated and cross-laminated timber. At 49 meters (160 feet), it breaks the record previously held by the 32-meter-tall Forté in Melbourne (mentioned earlier in this list) as the world’s tallest multi-family residential building.
Located adjacent to the delightfully named Puddefjord Bridge on Bergen’s scenic waterfront, Treet is home to a total of 62 luxury apartment residences, which were produced as super-efficient modular units built to stringent Passivhaus standards in an Estonian factory and then shipped to the install site and assembled — stacked rather, within a relatively short time. (This video provides a decent overview of the project’s speedy, innovative and deeply sustainable construction methods.)
Treet’s developer, the Bergen and Omegn Building Society (BOB), believes that the building’s wood construction helped to avoid the emission of more than 21,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. “I strongly believe that a timber high-rise is a good answer to sustainable building in urban areas,” Rune Abrahamsen of BOB explained at the 2016 International Wood Symposium in Vancouver. “Definitely 25 storeys is achievable. To do this you got to push the limits and stay loyal to your plans, and never give up. You have to believe that the impossible is possible, if you don't believe that, find something else to do.”
Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George, British Columbia
Last but not least, from Michael Green — the man who literally wrote the book (or the feasibility study) on tall wood buildings — comes the Wood Innovation and Design Centre (WIDC) in Prince George, a bustling and historically forestry-dependent burg in northern British Columbia that’s official mascot is an only slightly creepy anthropomorphic log-man named Mr. PG.
A charred cedar-clad mothership for timber-centric innovation in the western provinces and beyond, “WIDC is about celebrating wood as one of the most beautiful and sustainable materials for building here in BC and around the globe,” writes Green’s eponymous architecture firm of the $25 million CAD project that’s inspired a score of other tall wood buildings across the globe including, most close to home, Brock Commons, a record-breaking 18-story wood-hybrid tower nearing completion on the campus of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
At eight-stories and 29.5 meters (97 feet) tall, the trailblazing WIDC was the tallest all-timber structure in the world when completed in 2014. Incorporating a range of locally produced engineered wood products including cross-laminated timber (CLT), glue-laminated timber (glulam) and laminated veneer lumber, the structure is home to the University of Northern British Columbia (HQ for its Master of Engineering program in Integrated Wood Design, go figure) along with various offices earmarked for governmental and wood-related enterprises, the latter of which there are no shortage of in Prince George.
“The hardest part of this process of introducing a new way to build is not the engineering; it is shifting the public’s perception of what is possible,” Vancouver-based Green told the Globe and Mail in 2015. “What we want to do is reduce the things that we know aren’t good for us, like steel and concrete, but that doesn’t mean we get rid of them completely. We are just reproportioning these materials in buildings and not trying to say that one is exclusive over another.”