Solid Wood: The Rise of Mass Timber Architecture

Largely overlooked in the development of Modernism, timber architecture is making a comeback in the 21st century with the success of designers such as last year's Pritzker Prize winner Shigeru Ban, and the push toward timber towers from large influential firms such as SOM. In the following extract, author Joseph Mayo introduces his new book, "Solid Wood: Case Studies in Mass Timber Architecture, Technology and Design," which examines the rise of mass timber design through historical analysis and contemporary case studies.

Few books have addressed the use of wood in large, non-residential buildings. While light frame construction and residential resources are common, little has been written about the use of wood in taller, urban, commercial and institutional buildings. Solid Wood presents a survey of new timber architecture around the world to reveal this construction type’s unique appeal and potential. Not surprisingly, enthusiasm for solid wood architecture (also known as mass timber architecture) and engineering is now growing rapidly among a new generation of architects and designers.

Courtesy of Routledge

Quests for material permanence, taller heights, structural innovation, and new architectural styles conspired to stem advancements in wood craftsmanship during the last 200 years. Steel and concrete rose to new heights in European and North American cultural centers during the 19th and 20th centuries. Meanwhile, wood became associated with lower-grade and lower-cost construction—buildings of lesser stature, safety and durability. The wide-spread adoption of concrete and steel coupled with the enormous manufacturing infrastructure for these materials and building codes that now favored non-combustible construction led to their dominance, and a general lack of investigation of other materials.

The reasons for wood's resurgence today are scientific rather than nostalgic, especially its environmental performance traits and ease of prefabrication. Much international research has found that using wood in place of other construction materials can lead to a significant reduction in Greenhouse Gases (GHG), while at the same time allowing for a net increase in the global forest cover if sustainable forestry practices are employed. After a century of decline, wood is finding its way back to the forefront of urban architecture.

Courtesy of Routledge

Interest in large engineered wood buildings is driven by both technological advances and the growing concern for ecology and sustainable construction practices. In many places, wood has caught up with concrete and steel in terms of industrialized manufacturing, prefabrication and rapid site erection, leading to overall cost competitiveness. Designers and engineers from regions around the world have taken note and developed new, innovative timber buildings based on technology, know-how, and resources available to them. With a focus on high-tech design, production and speed, contemporary, engineered wood construction is able to compete with other materials on cost, but also offers the additional benefits of beauty, connection to craftsmanship, and a regional, ecological-based architecture.

While much can be said of the quantifiable environmental reasons to pursue wood construction, this unique material also presents more subtle and qualitative arguments for its use. In the hewn logs, joinery, and ornament of traditional wood construction, we can find a reflection of the people and cultures that raised these structures. Often these buildings do not just resist external forces, but are meditations on life and the construction process itself. The versatility of wood has allowed countless cultures to express their identity, and is continuing to do so today. While wood is a challenging medium to work with, its use can establish an identity of place and reclaim a heritage of building and craftsmanship. Today the use of wood is again capturing the imagination of designers and builders for many of the same reasons that our ancestors used this material: for its availability, versatility, and ability to renew itself.

Courtesy of Routledge

Solid Wood: Case Studies in Mass Timber Architecture, Technology and Design provides a detailed look at the potential and application of timber architecture:

  • an overview into the use of wood in an historical context in countries around the world.
  • the environmental rationale for the use of wood
  • recent developments in contemporary fire safety and structural issues
  • insights into building code challenges
  • 28 detailed case studies of new mass timber buildings and building systems

Courtesy of Routledge

The book contains a wealth of technical drawings, construction images and finished photography so the reader can understand the benefits and challenges of mass timber architecture from a project’s start to finish. Case studies from the UK, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Italy, Canada, the United States, New Zealand, and Australia highlight design strategies, construction details and unique cultural attitudes in wood design. The case studies include the most ambitious academic, hospitality, industrial, multi-family, and wood office buildings in the world.

The book not only answers the question of why different design teams choose wood, but it also demonstrates the diversity of design options available using solid wood building techniques, whether that be panelized buildings, post and beam buildings, hybrid buildings, or modular buildings. Solid Wood presents a cross-section of case studies that demonstrate how architects, engineers and designers are using novel approaches to challenge conventional notions about wood construction, pushing against building code limitations, and in many cases going beyond those limitations. In doing so, they are solving age-old problems of durability, stability and fire-safety while creating compelling, place-based architecture that can compete with more conventional materials.

Solid Wood: The Rise of Mass Timber Architecture

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Cite: Joseph Mayo. "Solid Wood: The Rise of Mass Timber Architecture" 18 Feb 2015. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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