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More than a Tall Tale
Wanda Lau / ARCHITECT / June 17, 2013
The firm behind many of the world’s tallest buildings discusses a potential path to timber towers that meet building codes.
The growing interest in designing wood high-rises moved a step closer to feasibility when Skidmore, Owings & Merrill recently published its Timber Tower Research Project. Credited with designing many of the world’s tallest buildings, including the Cayan Tower in Dubai, SOM is no stranger to venturing into unchartered territory.
In its report, SOM develops the design for a timber structural system for a prototypical building with the same parameters of the Dewitt-Chestnut Apartments, a 395-foot-tall, 42-story building in Chicago by SOM erected in 1966. Currently the tallest modern buildings that utilize wood construction hover around nine stories tall. Talks are under way to build 20- and 30-story buildings in Canada and Austria.
Rather than proposing an all-timber structural system, SOM developed a “concrete jointed timber frame” option that combines the structural behavior of reinforced concrete with the carbon-sequestering benefits of cross-laminated timber (CLT). The design’s material use and efficiency could reduce the carbon footprint of a conventional reinforced-concrete and steel building by 60 to 75 percent, SOM estimated.
Benton Johnson, AIA, a SOM associate who helped lead the study, talked with ARCHITECT about the next steps to taking a timber skyscraper into reality.
Why did SOM become involved in this project?
The number of people living in cities is projected to double from 3.5 billion to 7 billion by 2050. We’re going to have to add a lot of buildings to our cities, and we wanted to figure out the most sustainable way to do that. We know that structure is a key part of the embodied (carbon) footprint [of buildings]. After some research, we found that wood is hands down the most sustainable material.