"Office building goes up in Minneapolis" isn't exactly a headline built to blow up Twitter. But the seven-story, 210,000-square-foot T3 commercial structure that broke ground at the end of July in the city's North Loop neighborhood isn't just any office. A new home for the Hines development firm, T3 (Timber, Technology and Transit) will be the first tall-timber building of its type in the United States, a new spin on architecture utilizing a material that's been a bedrock of construction for millennia. According to architect Michael Green, when it's finished in late 2016, T3 will challenge assumptions many hold about wooden structures, and represent a massive technological leap beyond the old-school timber warehouses that surround it. Green, one of a number of architects worldwide specializing in tall-timber construction, sees buildings like this as part of a vanguard of sustainable construction technology that will be called upon to create taller and taller buildings going forward. With so much of our energy footprint going towards constructing and maintaining buildings, it only makes sense to move away from resource-intensive steel.
"It's the beauty of what we're doing here, incorporating modern technology with good, old ideas," he says. "We're not reinventing the wheel, we're bringing back a very good wheel."
Green's eponymous Canadian firm is perhaps best known for the seven-story Wood Innovation and Design Centre in Prince George, British Columbia, currently the tallest timber building in North America. For the T3 project, he's been forced to start with a concrete foundation to meet code requirements, and the skeleton will be steel, but the vast majority of the structure will be wood sourced from the West Coast. The core and floorplates will be made from huge panels of engineered lumber that have been nailed and glued together, with support provided by engineered wooden columns (pressed together to replicate the load-bearing abilities previously provided by massive beams cut from old growth timber). The panels' density actually means they won't burn through completely, instead forming a protective layer of charcoal. It's a marriage of old and new techniques, he says, that will provide a much more energy-efficient building due to the natural source materials. And, as opposed to concrete-and-steel structures that often draw in the cold, this wooden structure will provide insulation, a godsend in a cold climate such as Minneapolis.
While Europe has traditionally been the leader in re-developing timber as a building material for tall structures—The Stadthaus, a nine-story building in London built in 2008 with cross-laminated timber, was one of the forerunners of the modern wooden building boom—Green feels North America is starting to catch up.
"Height is happening, but it's a slow process," he says. "There are a few projects in the U.S. being considered, and you're starting to see innovation creep up."
While there are scores of projects utilizing cross-laminated timber and heavy wood construction, one of the projects Green is most excited about is the recent $60M forestry school expansion at Oregon State University dedicated to advancing the technology behind timber construction. The concept reinforces the main ecological and economical advantages of the practice, the ability to harvest renewable resources for construction while concurrently redeveloping rural economies. As timber buildings get higher in cities across the country, different areas, such as the seismic West Coast or windy Midwest, will require unique systems and designs to start rising above 20 floors. Developing and sharing regional knowledge between builders, regulators and architects will be key to future acceptance, still a barrier to more widespread adoption.
"The U.S. government investment in building science technology represents .0001 percent of total innovation investment," he says. "That's a statistic that needs to be shouted from the roof tops."
While the industry is just starting to get off the ground here, Green and his firm are aiming skyward. A perfect example is their recent proposal for a 35-story tower in Paris. Set to be submitted after the contentious battle over the Herzog & de Meuron tower, the first tall building of any type approved in Paris in decades, the MGA plan was abandoned. But that was because it was tall and in Paris, not tall and made of wood.
"We have a new means of building that can help us realize a new era of architecture, a post-climate era," he says. "As this develops, we'll see how this changes the look of our cities and buildings.