This article was originally published on YES! Magazine and allows reprint 48 hours after publication.
Milwaukee’s proposed 25-story Ascent tower sounds like a conventional housing project. It is scheduled to open in September 2022 and offers more than 250 apartments overlooking downtown Milwaukee and Lake Michigan. But one thing sets it apart from other residential towers in the United States – it is supposed to be the tallest wooden tower in the world.
Companies working with wood construction believe that compared to typical building materials such as steel and concrete, wood is easier and cheaper to use and more durable in the long run. The best: It can benefit the environment.
“Mass construction in wood [a method of using timber for construction] requires 90 percent less construction traffic, 75 percent fewer workers on site and is 25 percent faster than traditional construction. All of these reductions contribute to reduced emissions associated with the construction process, “said Tim Gokhman of New Land Enterprises, the team behind the Ascent tower.
While the use of wooden structures to save the environment sounds counterintuitive, an increasing number of wooden buildings built in the United States in the past few years have proven the opposite.
Construction is typically one of the largest sources of carbon emissions. According to the recent Global Status Report, building and construction is responsible for more than 35 percent of all carbon emissions in the world, 40 percent in the United States. This number is estimated to have almost doubled by 2050, as millions of residential and commercial buildings are being built each year.
To combat such emissions from construction, real estate developers and construction companies use wood to sequester carbon and enable sustainable housing projects. To explain how this works, says Erica Dodds, CEO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration, “Trees remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. When trees are then converted into mass timber for construction, the carbon is ‘locked inside’ the buildings. For decades or even centuries, reducing the amount available in the atmosphere. “
In addition to pulling carbon out of the atmosphere, “mass lumber also helps builders avoid emission-intensive building materials like concrete and steel,” Dodds adds. “Mass timber construction can help us avoid between 14 percent to 31 percent of global annual emissions by preventing the emissions that would occur from the use of concrete or steel in construction.”
Take, for example, Milwaukee’s Ascent Tower. “By using bulk timber, Ascent uses a renewable resource,” says Gokhman of New Land Enterprises. “Sustainable forestry is the basis of the mass tree movement, and it is estimated that rebuilding the tree would only take 25 minutes of natural growth in the North American forests. [buildings such as] Ascent will use. “
Some advocates suggest that well-managed timber procurement can actually benefit the environment. “With careful forestry, sustainable logging can preserve forests’ biodiversity and resilience, making them less vulnerable to pests and wildfires,” says Dodds. “These emissions savings can more than offset the risk of reduced CO2 capture in forests.”
For these reasons, timber construction has been popular in European cities for years, and North America is catching up. Today, 1,114 massive wooden houses and commercial projects are underway throughout the United States. Many of these are housing projects that offer a sustainable housing alternative to traditional steel construction.
For example, Vancouver has a log-built student housing, Cleveland has proposed a nine-story timber-floor apartment complex, and Brooklyn, New York, has Frame Home.
In addition to providing an environmentally friendly housing alternative, solid wood construction offers a wide range of safety and durability benefits.
“Data show that pulpwood performs as well as or even better than other building materials in fire, earthquake and wind conditions. In fire tests, pulpwood panels char on the outside and form an insulating barrier that protects interior wood,” Gokhman said.
Weight is another important factor to consider when building high-rise buildings, Gokhman adds. “Cities around the world are actually sinking slowly. Years and years of urban development that take into account the weight of a building, but not the weight of a block, have contributed to a geological phenomenon called land subsidence.”
This is where wood construction can help. Using their Ascent project as an example, they add: “Because Ascent is about 1/5 of the weight of a concrete building at the same height, we can increase population density with a smaller footprint.”
So if wood construction is so beneficial, then why does not everyone do it?
While wooden buildings offer a wealth of industrial and environmental benefits, some concerns have still not been completely eradicated.
First, wood construction uses a lot of trees, and there is little guarantee of officially supervised and ethical wood purchasing. Finding enough wood for such large construction projects without compromising the current wood forests can be an economic, ethical and legal minefield. And right now, with rising climate risks, even a small percentage of bad players can pose serious threats to the environment.
Another concern for developers of wooden structures was the International Building Code (IBC), which restricted the construction of tall wooden buildings for safety. Carrying out the necessary research and getting approvals was a two-year process for Ascent because the building will exceed the historic height limit for a wooden structure by about 200 feet, Gokhman says. “There were no U.S. precedents or a roadmap to follow when it came to development, financing, insurance or procurement.”
Fortunately for timber developers, the code has been changed so that timber buildings can be built as high as 18 storeys, which may explain the recent boom in timber construction. “That [updated] code will better enable the design and construction of tall timber buildings up to 18 storeys high, up from six previously, “said Will Gulliver, director of Turner & Townsend, a global real estate development and consulting firm that recently began working on wood projects.
There is also a consciousness problem. Many developers have not considered wood construction simply because they are not aware that there is such an environmentally friendly alternative to steel and concrete.
For example, even Ascent’s developers did not realize at first what benefits timber construction had to offer. “Our team was attracted to wood for its beauty and the innate benefits of creating spaces that utilize natural elements,” Gokhman said. “We discovered the myriad of environmental benefits associated with solid wood construction after we had already started working on the project.”
Despite these difficulties, experts like Gokhman, Dodds and Gulliver agree that the benefits of building real wood can outweigh the problems. As awareness grows and obstacles diminish, there is a possibility that other states will also adopt wood construction as an environmentally friendly alternative to concrete and steel houses.
This story was originally published by Next City. It is republished here as part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting on responses to social problems.