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London's 80-storey wooden skyscraper could solve a major architectural problem

The use of timber as a building material has a number of benefits over steel and concrete, according to Cambridge University.

LONDON’S SKYLINE COULD feature an 80-storey wooden skyscraper in the future, if plans that were recently presented to Mayor Boris Johnson are approved.

Cambridge University researchers have teamed up with PLP Architecture and engineers Smith and Wallwork on a proposed 300-metre tall timber building. If built, it would be the capital’s second-tallest building, behind The Shard.

Oakwood Tower would be integrated within the Barbican performing arts venue in central London, and would be the site of at least 1,000 new residential units.

The use of timber as a building material has a number of benefits over steel and concrete, according to architects at Cambridge University. Wood is cheaper to produce, can be constructed faster, and helps to reduce the overall weight of buildings, according to a press release.

The team at Cambridge isn’t the first to suggest wood as an alternative to steel and concrete for skyscrapers. Vancouver architect Michael Green has led a campaign in recent years calling for wood to return as a major building material. In a 2013 Ted Talk, Green said that using wood is a solution to the biggest problem facing architects: meeting the growing demand for housing without increasing carbon emissions.

oakwood tower barbican view Source: Cambridge University

The production of concrete and steel contributes 8% of the world’s greenhouse gases, according to Green.

“Ultimately, the clash between serving people who need a home and climate change is a head-on collision that is about to happen. That challenge means that we have to start thinking in new ways and I think wood is part of that solution,” Green said in his talk.

The sort of wood needed to produce buildings like Oakwood Tower is currently expanding worldwide, according to Cambridge University researchers. Canada alone could produce 15 billion cubic metres of it in the next 70 years – enough to house a billion people, according to the press release.

Michael Ramage, Director of Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation, said: “We’ve put out 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. The fundamental premise is that timber and other natural materials are vastly underused and we don’t give them nearly enough credit.

At present, the world’s tallest timber building is a 14-storey block of apartments in Norway, which stands at 49 metres. At just 3oo metres, Oakwood Tower would comfortably be the tallest of its type on Earth.

This is what it would look like from the south bank of the River Thames:

oakwood tower river at night Source: Cambridge University

A wooden skyscraper does raise fire concerns, but Ramage says the plans would not move forward if there were any worries regarding safety.

He told Business Insider over email: “This is an area where we need more research because it hasn’t been considered on this scale before. But the risk of fire in massive timber buildings is very different and much lower than in the typical wooden buildings that were built when cities burned like London and Chicago.

We say it will be safe because the codes are there for a reason, and we would have to meet them, as responsible engineers and architects. We wouldn’t build it if it wasn’t safe, and we’re working on how that can be done and demonstrated.

Ramage said the cost of the project or when work would begin it is not yet known, as the plans are still at an early stage.

- Adam Payne

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Business Insider
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