The skyscraper of the future is made of wood

Timber structures result in shorter construction programmes, lighter buildings, and smaller foundations. On top of this, they reduce carbon emissions significantly.

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Ramboll. Gavin White. Image courtesy of Paulina Sobczak Photography

Gavin White

Director

Finn Larsen

By Kristine Barenholdt Bruun, March 2016

The world is in the midst of a tall building boom where skyscrapers are defining the prosperity of modern cities.

These towers come in all kind of forms with facades in all kinds of glazed material. But scratch below the surface, and you will find the same steel or concrete structure that supported the first skyscrapers in 19th century New York and Chicago.

However, this could be changed by one of our oldest construction materials – timber.

The ancient material possesses a multitude of qualities in regard to both building projects and environment. Ramboll Structural Engineering Director Gavin White, who has pioneered the use of timber and Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) over the last decade, explains:

- Timber construction can lead to shorter construction programmes due to offsite prefabrication. It has good thermal and fire performance properties and results in lighter buildings’ requiring smaller foundations. The sustainability benefits often make it possible to create a carbon neutral structure”.

 

Saving huge amounts of CO2


Currently, Gavin White is working on the tallest and largest CLT project globally. The name of the project is Dalston Lane - a 121 unit residential development in London that will use more timber than any other scheme in the world and stand at 33m tall.

Especially in regard to the climate, this is a very positive record to hold. Gavin White explains why:  

- CLT boasts many material benefits, not least its sustainability. In total, Dalston Lane will save 2,400 tonnes of carbon, compared to an equivalent block with a concrete frame.
 
By using a CLT construction in the Dalston Lane project, the embodied carbon is 2.5 times less than that of an equivalent concrete frame. Taking into account that timber stores carbon by absorbing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, also known as sequestered carbon, the Dalston Lane structure can be considered as ‘carbon negative’. Its 3,852 cubic metres of CLT will form the external, party and core walls, floors and stairs.

- In a world where sustainability is ever critical, this truly viable construction material is one we need to embrace, Gavin White says. 


Timber helps making room for a denser city


With an increasing number of the world’s population moving to central locations in capitals and cities, there is a growing need for densification as space becomes increasingly limited. But in the world’s developed cities, increased densification can pose significant challenges as these cities boast a myriad of underground infrastructure that supports the mobility of the city. This is where the weight of timber can bring significant value to a development.

- The light weight of timber makes it possible to increase the height of a proposed development because it exerts less load onto the underground infrastructure. It also enables developments, where previously not thought possible, as the lighter building can be built on shallower foundations, Gavin White explains.

With London’s High Speed 1 and Crossrail passing under the building site of the Dalston development, the choice for CLT was unequivocal with its lighter construction weight that enabled smaller foundations and a further two stories of accommodation on to the building.


A sprouting global popularity


Little by little, wood has regained foothold as a popular construction material all over the world – from Asia to Europe and USA.

In Ramboll, timber experts have worked with both cross laminated timber and massive wood constructions for over a decade in countries such as England, Sweden, Norway and Finland, constantly pushing the boundaries of this dynamic material.

The renaissance of timber engineering has been bred out of changing attitudes towards high rise timber construction, advances in design possibilities, and by pioneers willing to explore in detail the possibilities of tall timber construction.

In Denmark, Finn Larsen, Senior Engineer in Ramboll, is part of a research group with pioneers and scientist from three universities and a number of companies who is investigating the use of timber in tall buildings:
 
 - Tall timber buildings are here to stay. Both CLT and massive wood has a number of advantages that fit very well into a modern society with sustainability needs as well as the need for denser cities, Finn Larsen explains while referring to the light weight of timber and the low carbon emissions.
  
In Denmark, the first tall timber building is yet to come. But Finn Larsen is hoping to be able to utilize the experience that Ramboll has gained in other countries to inspire the wider use of timber in Denmark.

More information

Building with timber


Related projects

Dalston Works completed

Dalston Works

Dalston Works is the largest Cross Laminated Timber project globally. Weighing just one fifth of a comparable concrete structure, it accommodates 10 storeys above a planned Crossrail route.

Mayfield School

Mayfield School

The expansion and modernisation of Mayfield Secondary School provides a showcase of how the latest construction materials, technologies and collaboration can address the increasing demand for school places, within tight programmes and budgets.

William Perkin High School

Containing 3,800 cubic metres of timber, the William Perkin High School is the largest cross laminated timber building in the UK.

Open Academy, Norwich

At more than three times the size of its nearest rival, also engineered by Ramboll, the new-build Open Academy in Norwich was the largest cross-laminated timber panel structure in the country on completion. It uses more than 3,600 cu m of timber, is three storeys high and provides 9,500 sq m of open, flexible school accommodation.

Our experience and expertise with cross-laminated timber panel constructed led to our being specifically requested by the contractor for the timber engineering work. We used 3D integrated structural modelling software to co-ordinate the structural design with the M&E design concept at an early stage, which enabled an efficient and elegant solution to the integration of the two.

Among the advantages of using cross-laminated timber construction is the considerable savings it brings in carbon dioxide emissions. For this project, the technique saved an estimated 2,900 tonnes of CO2 when compared with an equivalent building frame in steel or concrete. This is roughly equivalent to 8.3 million car miles. A further advantage is the reduction in site waste - reduced to just two skips from the the Open Academy superstructure.

Erection of the superstructure commenced in June 2009 and took just 16 weeks, providing programme savings 14-18 weeks - another advantage for both contractor and client.

Cavendish Avenue residence

A traditional residential street in the heart of Cambridge has been given a contemporary facelift with the construction of a sustainable, three-storey timber frame house. A 1930s building was demolished to create the site.

Using 95mm thick cross-laminated panels of sustainably sourced fir, spruce and pine, we erected the watertight frame in six days. A glulam sub-frame provided a practical and robust solution, using renewable materials.

The most striking structural feature of this Modernist, box-like building is a first floor wall panel designed to support floor and roof loads above. We worked with our client to fit the roof with an architecturally-designed skylight that runs the length of the house. As well as maximising natural light, the skylight provides a visual ...

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