A Wooden Skyline: How Wooden Buildings Are Making a Comeback in Construction

Tall wooden buildings are challenging the concept of a high-rise, pushing for a farm-to-frame approach, and in the next decade, could be reshaping skylines around the country, starting with Portland and Manhattan.

Portland multi-purpose wood building

475 West 18th Street by SHoP Architects

“By embracing the benefits of wood as a sustainable building material, these demonstration projects have the ability to help change the face of our communities, mitigate climate change and support jobs in rural America,” Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, said at a press conference for the US Tall Wood Competition last year where two projects–one in Oregon and another in New York City–were given $1.5 million each for their inventive designs using timber as the building blocks of construction.These wooden buildings are employing a more compact form of wood, referred to as cross-laminated timber, or CLT. Sheets of wood, like those readily available at home improvement stores, are compressed together to create a sturdy, resilient material that can be prefabricated into sizes and designs for a custom build. Moreover, this lumber could be coming from our own backyard, aiding the timber industry in the northwest and giving rise to a farm-to-frame movement. By weaving wood into urban structures, theses designs also bring a bit of the forest and nature to an otherwise concrete and steel jungle.

While CLT structures may be new to the States, they’re part of a larger global trend. Architects and developers in Europe and Canada have already started experimenting with CLT timber, such as Bridgeport House in up-and-coming Hackney in London or this academic building in Vancouver. The tallest, however, is at fourteen stories high in Bergen, Norway, a small environmentally-conscious city that serves as a gateway to the country’s fjords.

Timber framework building

The projects in New York City and Oregon would be the first for the US. Thomas Robinson, founder of LEVER architecture, the firm responsible for designing Framework, the multi-purpose wooden building in trendy Pearl District of Portland, says that there is a very clear reason why Europe and Canada have been able to forge ahead.

“Currently there’s only one manufacturer of CLT in the country. That’s it. Even though Oregon has a massive timber industry, there are few resources for accredited CLT,” he said in an interview from his Portland studio.


Anyeley Hallova, a partner at Project^, a Portland-based real estate developer working with LEVER on this building, refers to Framework as the “catalyst” that could make mass timber structures more common in the States: “Hopefully, once we go through the testing process with this initial structure, and figure out sourcing for the materials, we can make it easier for others in the future,” she says.

LEED certification building

Framework, at twelve stories high and 90,000 square feet, will have space for apartments, offices and retail shops that, Hallova says, could be filled by B corporations, ethically-minded companies with a social and environmental mission — making it more than just an apartment building, but a destination, and a statement, in itself. The building is expected to be completed in 2017.

Founder of the US Green Building Council who helped bring LEED certification to the forefront, Rick Fedrizzi, is enthusiastic about both projects. Research, in fact indicates that wood is not only a renewable material, but also withholds large amounts of carbon, making it eco-friendly building material.

Travis Price, an architect based in Washington, DC, who specializes in environmentally-friendly designs, says that firms have to be careful about exposing the wood to the outside elements. As long as it’s used primarily for a construction material, wood works.

“Keep the wood inside as a frame and as a humane decor,” he says. “The most sustainable skin in the world is still stainless steel.” Poignantly, he adds, “There is no free lunch in nature.”

While we have to get smart about longevity and be mindful of mixing materials for optimum results, innovative designers are working hard to push this new concept forward and that’s what excites Fedrizzi.

“The biophilic nature of wood construction can create beautiful, inspiring, enduring spaces, and it will be interesting to see how these leading firms use this opportunity to demonstrate the possibilities.”

Biophilic may be the best word to express this new direction in architecture — a return to the instinctive relation between mankind and nature.


LEVER image: The proposed Framework mixed-use project in Portland, Oregon. Credit: LEVER Architecture.