Ancient multi-level timber church

Ancient multi-level timber church
Ancient multi-storey wooden church in Poland. Photo ©Shutterstock

Eco-friendly timber buildings are headed for the stars

This post is in keeping with our mantra of thinking about sustainability and takes a look at the incredible rise of tall timber buildings.

Everywhere you look these days there seems to be another developer announcing the latest ‘world’s tallest timber tower’.

From an environmental perspective, more structural timber elements (over energy-intensive steel and concrete) in multi-storey buildings is good news.

The only question now is, how high is the timber ceiling?

High-rise timber office, Brisbane
5 King Street, Brisbane will be the world’s tallest timber office building. Photo Aurecon

Progress was slow

For many years, I published a magazine that tracked the use of timber in architecture and interior design. And while there was much talk about the potential for re-engineered structural wood products to go high-rise, progress was, understandably, slow.

The boldest initial moves skyward came from Europe, where light and incredibly strong engineered wood products such as cross-laminated timber (CLT) were invented and proven.

Gradually, southern hemisphere developers looking for ‘greener’ buildings took up the challenge. And when the 10-storey, 32.3 m Forté apartments in Melbourne were opened in 2012, they were the world’s tallest using CLT.

Closer to the stars

Numerous other so-called ‘plyscrapers’ have moved closer to the stars, including: The Tree, in Bergen, Norway – a 14-storey (52.8 m) glulam and CLT structure, and the newly opened The Tall Wood at the University of British Columbia in Canada, which tops 53 m (18 storeys).

By the end of 2018, the world’s tallest timber office tower will be at 5 King Street in Brisbane – 52 m high and covering 10 storeys.

They will all be surpassed by the HAUT, a 21-storey timber tower in Amsterdam and a 40-storey wooden giant in Sweden – among others.

Inside a timber skyscraper
Glulam and CLT hold up the giant Mjøstårnet ‘plyscraper’ in Norway. Photo: Øystein Krogsrud

But the tallest of the cellulose (and steel) towers closest to completion is named after Norway’s largest lake, Mjøsa – located in the small town of Brumunddal, north of Oslo.

Arthur Buchardt, investor and contracting client, has dubbed the 80-plus metre construction, “The closest we [have] come to a skyscraper in timber.”

More than 30 m higher than the current plyscraper leader, Mjøstårnet will span 18 floors and be completed in December 2018.

Daddy of them all

For the daddy of them all, however, it seems only fitting that the client should be a forestry company!

Sumitomo Forestry of Japan is planning to have a 350 m timber/steel tower open in central Tokyo by 2041 – to mark its parent company’s 350th anniversary.

To be known as ‘W350’, it will be part of an eco-friendly ‘city’ of high-rise buildings made of wood. Unless something comes along in the meantime, W350 will be the tallest wooden structure in the world.

Footnote: Engineers say it is mainly the base width that determines how high a timber building can go, and that 150 m could be possible.

©Natural Images 2018


Red toilet in forest
Red toilet in forest
Timber toilet in American oak forest – ©Tony Neilson

The calming effect of timber structures

They say wooden buildings are good for your blood pressure – like finding a ‘dunny’ in the bush perhaps?

That’s probably not what the Planet Ark Environmental Foundation had in mind recently when praising the Tasmanian Government for becoming the first Australian state to introduce a wood-first building policy.

But it is a relevant parallel thought, and reminded me of being ‘caught short’ while photographing American oak forests in Kentucky some years ago. Desperation was setting in when this beautiful, red-painted bog with gleaming white upright toilet lid showing through an open door shimmered in the distance.

Not a mirage

It was no mirage, and I can thus agree with Planet Ark’s wood promotion campaign manager David Rowlinson, that people are generally happier and calmer in wooden structures.

“Exposure to buildings made from timber [with] wooden furnishings and fittings has proven benefits to physiological and psychological health and wellbeing, similar to those experienced by spending time in nature,” he says.

“We know that workers are less stressed and more productive, students learn better, patients heal faster, and people are generally happier and calmer in indoor areas that have wooden elements.

Greater self-esteem

“Researchers have also reported that people experience higher levels of self-esteem, improved cognitive function and decreased blood pressure when exposed to wood in their built environment.”

Full marks to the Tasmanian Government for its Wood Encouragement Policy (WEP) in construction and refurbishment of public buildings. Despite numerous procurement and performance provisos, the island state has joined two local government authorities and 12 councils across Australia with WEPs.



Building glad in bird-friendly glass
Glass high-rise in Shanghai
Researchers say the first 12 m of glass-clad buildings present the greatest danger. Photo: ©TN.jpg)

But the astronomical carnage continues

There is only one thing more deadly to birds than buildings – cats!

Research by the Green Building Alliance (GBA), a US-based group of architects, engineers and designers of environmentally sustainable projects, says cats are the only things that kill more birds than building collisions.

The group reckons power lines in the US kill 100 – 200 million birds annually, and wind turbines account for another 10,000 – 40,000.

But the biggies are buildings (mainly glass-clad) and moggies (domestic and feral) – each taking out up to one billion birds a year. And that’s just in the United States.

Shocking figures

These are shocking and little known figures, and dwarf the more highly publicised numbers associated with migratory wading bird losses to habitat destruction and climate change. (Of course, there are far fewer waders on the planet than there are general bird species, so the net impact on the former would be greater.)

Virtually any building with glass poses a threat to birds. Yes, even in the architecturally challenged tropical Australian city of Cairns (the writer’s adopted home), bird strike is apparently a problem.

Little kingfishers

Little kingfisher close-up
Little kingfisher deaths blamed on collisions with glass. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

Passionate Cairns birding identity Brian Venables has blamed the reflective surfaces of the city’s Botanical Gardens Visitor Centre for the recent death of two little kingfishers (Ceyx pusillus). An iconic species in the area, he believes the kingfisher fatalities are part of a string of incidents involving a variety of species.

While the likes of Venables highlight the problem at the local level, we Natural Images has uncovered evidence of significant new research and advances in the creation of more bird-friendly buildings.

The GBA says birds have poor depth perception and can’t distinguish architectural context clues that humans use to avoid collisions. Reflections on glass can also make a building or window appear similar to nearby vegetation or the rest of the sky, causing birds to think that is a safe place to fly.

“When glass looks transparent,” says the GBA, “birds may want to fly to whatever is behind it, particularly if there is indoor foliage. Glass often appears transparent when it is used for railings, skywalks, or on both sides of the corner of a building.”

Lower levels crucial

The organisation says the lower levels of a building (first 12 m) and levels next to a green roof are places where bird-friendly design is most critical.

The GBA says wildlife biologists have tested bird-deterring windows using a dark tunnel with a window at one end.  Half the window is a pane of the glass being tested and next to it is a standard pane of clear glass.  A bird placed in the tunnel will fly towards the window to try to escape and is stopped with netting before reaching the window—but allowing researchers to see which side it favours.

A significant preference for clear glass indicates that birds perceive the other pane of glass as an obstacle, which is exactly what is needed for bird-friendly design.

Building glad in bird-friendly glass
New glass technology that birds can see is coming on the market

Horizontal spaces

The study has also confirmed that most birds will only fly through horizontal spaces 50 mm or higher and vertical spaces 100 mm or wider. Therefore, window patterns should have empty spaces no larger than 50 mm x 100 mm as an effective deterrent.

New York City architect Guy Maxwell  (How to Make a Bird-Friendly Building), confirms that the size of the glass and the amount of reflected vegetation or cloud are the major factors causing collision.

Glass wrapped around corners is another problem: “[Because] the bird can see all the way through to the other side, it thinks it can fly right through.”

New glass products

Modern glass buildings in Shanghai
Virtually any building with glass poses a threat to birds. Photo: ©Tony Neilson

More architects are looking for new glass products that birds can see, and which also looks good to us. For instance, etched window glass looks like a blank wall to birds but humans can see through it just fine.

A pencil-thin ceramic embedded in or on the glass called ‘frit’ is another possibility. It definitely diverts birds, but only if the rows of frit are not more than 50 mm apart. A German product featuring chaotic patterns of lines painted inside the glass (rather like the pick-up sticks game) is apparently showing good results.

And if all else fails, there are always wooden louvres!

Footnote: The powerful US Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program is taking pro-bird building design very seriously. Well known for awarding credits for embodied energy and the sustainable use of materials, LEED is now taking into account the bird-friendliness of materials, lighting, proximity to vegetation and bodies of water.

Story by ©Tony Neilson 2017


View along timbered skywalk through forest canopy
View along timbered skywalk through forest canopy
An inspiring hybrid timber and steel canopy walk through one of the world’s finest tree collections. Photo © Rob Parrish courtesy Wood Awards 2016

High fives for new canopy walk

There’s a new treetop walkway attracting a lot of attention in Britain – not least for its beauty and sustainable design.

The Stihl Treetop Walkway at the Westonbirt National Arboretum in Gloucestershire takes visitors through the canopy of one of the finest tree collections in the world.

Perspective emphasising height of poles supporting canopy walk
Columns of Siberian larch rise up to 13.5m above ground. Photo © Rob Parrish courtesy Wood Awards 2016

It is an outstanding example of environmental design and engineering, and won the Commercial and Leisure category of the recently judged 2016 UK Wood Awards.

No pseudo wood decking for this 300m structure – the longest of its kind in the UK. And although it rises 13.5m above ground at times, there are no stairs or lifts to negotiate.

The elevated walk snakes above and through the tree canopy, supported by scissoring timber legs spaced at 10.5m intervals. It is a hybrid timber and steel structure, featuring turned Siberian larch columns, and Scottish larch decking and handrails.

The walkway was designed by Glenn Howells architects and engineered by Buro Happold for the UK Forestry Commission.

Source: UK Wood Awards 2016

Timber cracks glass ceiling

open plan office area with curved timber ceiling

Malaysian fire department chooses wood 

A supreme irony and a milestone in sustainable construction wrapped into one. That’s the background to a story unfolding in Malaysia.

Peninsula Malaysia is hugely endowed with natural forest, most of it in gazetted reserves, with small areas selectively harvested under the watchful eye of international forest certification regulators. (Sadly, that’s not also the case in the country’s two other states, where claims of wholesale forest destruction continue.)

Use of the peninsula’s best construction timber species has for decades been severely restricted. Not for sustainability reasons, but the result of widely held banking and insurance industry perceptions that timber is riskier in a fire than steel.

A sardonic twist

Then, earlier this year, came a sardonic twist: the Malaysian Ministry of Housing (MOH) backed a ‘mission’ of public sector movers and shakers to New Zealand and Australia to see glulam and cross-laminated timber (CLT) construction first-hand. And perhaps more importantly, to watch independent charring tests of glulam timber under extreme fire conditions.

A senior fire department official in the Malaysian party was apparently openly skeptical about any kind of large dimension timber construction being used in fire stations – or most anywhere for that matter. But as a result of what he saw, plans are well advanced for four fire stations (and a wet/dry market) in Malaysia to be built or refurbished using glue-laminated local timber.

The first major step

The details are still being worked through, according to Asmadi Muhammad, a KL-based architect and CEO of engineered wood start-up MyGlam. “But this is the first major step to going into glulam here on a big scale.

“The main issue with wood in Malaysia has always been the misconception about fire resistance, but now that we have tackled that through independent analysis, there is no reason for glulam timber not to be used extensively.”

Great importance

This development is of great importance to the engineered tropical wood industry and follows several years’ research, technical missions to Australia, New Zealand, Scandinavia and the UK, and independent fire resistance testing of Malaysia’s construction species.

Meanwhile, site work for Malaysia’s first hardwood glulam pedestrian bridge began in September. It will span 43 m across a sensitive wetland and weir at the city of Putra Jaya, about 25 km south of Kuala Lumpur.

©Natural Images 2016