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Why timber construction is poised for a high-tech renaissance

A new exhibition at the National Building Museum in D.C. looks at the reasons behind the current rise of wooden construction

Museums with a focus on architecture often find themselves slightly out of time, focused on incredible works from the past, or inspired and educated guesses about a brighter future. But at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., a new exhibit, “Timber City,” which examines tall-timber construction around the world, looks at the evolution and expansion of a contemporary trend, one poised to become a much more common sight in cities across the country.

“We don’t normally do current events exhibitions,” says Professor Susan Piedmont-Palladino, one of the exhibit’s curators. “I’m fascinated with where we are in this moment. It must be akin to when architects were wrestling with reinforced concrete in the early 19th and 20th century. What’s the language of this material, and what’s its architectural expression?”

“Timber City” showcases the growing variety of new architecture being made from new types of wooden construction techniques, often referred to as tall-timber or cross-laminated timber structures, and its potential as a sustainable, affordable building method. While the technology has more of a foothold in Europe, where it’s been in use for the better part of a decade, architects and builders in the United States and Canada have started to catch up in the last few years, with plans and projects taking place across the country, including New York City, Minneapolis, and the Pacific Northwest, where many think timber can become a local, sustainable building material. Piedmont-Palladino’s co-curator, Yugon Kim, agrees.

“We now have a slew of US based products that are built or under construction,” Kim says. “I personally feel we’re at the cusp of this renaissance of timber construction.”

While engineers have conducted numerous studies, safety checks, and strength tests to verify that this new, high-tech form of timber construction has the stability to become a new urban building material, Piedmont-Palladino believes mass acceptance only comes when people can appreciate the beauty of the material. To that effect, the exhibit, created by Boston-based architectural design firm ikd, will showcase a number of projects and play up the aesthetic qualities of timber structures, with numerous models and large-scale displays of mass timber.

“If it’s not beautiful, and doesn’t capture the imagination, it’ll be a long slog before widespread adoption,” she says.

Piedmont-Palladino initially wanted to hold the exhibit in 2008, but back then, she thinks people would have scratched their heads. Now, she thinks the museum is catching the wave.

“There’s still a lot of people who don’t know what I’m talking about when I talk about tall timber construction,” she says. “But I believe we could be at a tipping point.”

Timber City will be at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., through May 17, 2017.