Sustainable building practices encompass many ideas: minimum resource consumption, efficient energy usage, recycled materials and so on. Often, new buildings and designs incorporate the latest technological innovations and use the newest materials (that are sometimes formed out of recycled products). But there’s a new technological innovation that’s starting to catch fire (pun intended), and this one has been around for a couple billion years.
Thanks to many environmental organizations, the danger of deforestation has been widely spread, and rightly so. Deforestation destroys biodiversity as well as health for the soil and wildlife (and yes, ultimately us humans). Entire jungles have been chopped down for the sake of more farmland, paper products, and lumber for buildings. And with such stories as The Lorax (which admittedly, I have not read, but I plan on seeing the film!), the dangers of tree-cutting are ringing even in the ears of today’s generation.
But it’s important to note that the very first materials used to build homes were made out of trees. Huts and tools and such were, and still are, made out of trees. The key is limited and controlled consumption. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but I once read that some lumber industries have made it a point to plant seeds for every tree they cut down, to ensure that another will take its place. Yes, I’m aware that seeds take quite a while to grow to be tree-cutting worthy, but the idea is still there. The point it that even though we have been taught that cutting down trees and using them for our purposes is a bad thing, the truth is that trees are a renewable resource (as long as we manage resource consumption diligently), we can keep growing them, and in that sense they are probably the most “green” building material we have (oh man, I am just full of puns today).
Architect Michael Green (yes, another play on words) has designed a 30 story skyscraper for Vancouver made primarily out of wood. Instead of using the traditional carbon-producing concrete and metal materials, Green utilizes a special type of lumber known as Laminated Strand Lumber (basically a bunch of small wooden strips glued together for increased structural properties) to construct the framework of his building. Green has been generous enough to post his research on the use of timber for tower construction publicly. Instead of adding to the carbon in the environment, this construction technique actually takes in carbon in the sense that while alive, trees and plants have this uncanny ability of breathing in carbon and breathing out oxygen.
You may be thinking, doesn’t wood catch on fire, and isn’t it a pretty poor substitute for metal and concrete? Well the truth is, wood is actually safer than steel when enflamed. The wood chars on the outside and creates a protective layering for the inside. And thanks to the innovative method of Laminated Strand Lumber (or Cross-Laminated Timber, as I discovered a few months ago), the wood performs just as well as steel and concrete for most building purposes.
Green isn’t the only architect that has thought about bringing back wood. Austria is also in the process of producing a wooden skyscraper. London is currently constructing a high-rise residential building made out of cross-laminated timber.
Not only is the use of wood sustainable (with careful forestry management), but the use of wood is also aesthetically appealing. After a few weather-proof treatments, you wouldn’t even need to spend extra on covering up the beautiful structural framework. Modern buildings are often characterized with the generous use of metals and glass, but it’s nice to see a more…earthly appearance to skyscrapers. The combination of wood and straight edges gives it a very tree-like appearance while still maintaining that human-designed beauty and order.
So while deforestation is still a topic that we all should be concerned about, I think the main takeaway is that more emphasis should be placed on managing the world’s forests. Trees provide so much benefit for the natural environment and humanity; if we can carefully manage the earth’s supply, we can come up with many sustainable innovations utilizing a renewable resource. Instead of always creating new things, perhaps we should look back on how older societies and tribes utilized their resources and improve upon their techniques for a modern age.