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Proposed 80-story wooden skyscraper may be a preview of tall timber future

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A project proposal in Chicago shows the continued fascination, and investment, in a new generation of wood towers

The proposed 80-story wooden tower from Perkins + WIll for Chicago.

In a city lined with pathbreaking towers and skyscrapers, the River Beech project, if it comes to fruition, may earn its own chapter in the history of Chicago architectural marvels. That’s because this proposed 80-story tower, a joint research project between Cambridge University, Perkins + Will, and Thornton Tomasetti would be a tall wooden tower, a landmark in the accelerating development of high-tech timber as a new type of 21st century building material.

“I don’t think there’s a height limit,” says Andy Tsay Jacobs, director of the Building Technology Lab at Perkins + Will who has collaborated on the River Beech proposal. “The answer is yes, wood can go 80 stories, no problem. The issues are less on the technical side than on the code side.”

According to Tsay Jacobs and his colleague Todd Snapp, an architect and principal at Perkins + Will’s Chicago office, this is a serious design representing the firm’s belief in the material, and the potential of a new generation of tall timber towers. Designed to fit in with the firm’s Riverline project, a huge riverfront development, though it isn’t actually part of the proposal (it’s more to give it a real world site and circumstances to inform the design) the 80-story beechwood structure would be the world’s tallest wooden tower if completed.

Others have been making similar bets on the new generation of wooden towers for years. Projects have been springing up across the country, including New York City, Minneapolis, and the Pacific Northwest, where Canadian architect Michael Green has become one of the foremost designers of tall wood structures, and plans for Framework, a 145-foot-tall wooden tower in Portland, received a green light earlier this summer. Overseas, Stockholm, Sweden, is considering the 40-story Trätoppen (“Treetop”), while PLP Architects proposed a 300-meter “plyscraper” for the Netherlands.

The structure’s unique diagrid design was created to maximize wood’s structural qualities.
Perkins + Will

Beginning with The Stadthaus, a nine-story building in London built in 2008, both Europe and North America have been the sites of numerous experiments and advances in high-tech timber construction, often built with cross-laminated timber, a dense series of compressed wood boards that provide structural support with a smaller carbon footprint.

The River Beech project follows other proposals and research aimed at encouraging tall timber towers, including a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill proposal to build a wooden skyscraper. According to Snapp, the difference with River Beech is that the designers started from scratch and focused on engineering and designing the best possible wooden tower (The SOM plan sought to recreate a traditional concrete structure with wood).

While it’s still in an early research phase, the River Beech plan shows a vision of a future that many architects and engineers feel isn’t a far-fetched as many may believe. Since it was first introduced last fall, the design has been tweaked and updated, and Tsay Jacobs believes its only a matter of testing, and updating building codes, before tall timber becomes a common part of construction.

“Mass timber can have a negative carbon footprint,” he says. “This is building with a renewable natural resource. You can’t replant the ore or rocks you’re extracting for steel and concrete.”