By: Lloyd Alter | Design/Green Architecture
Michael Green is known to TreeHuggers as the author of The Case for Tall Wood Buildings. However when he spoke at the Wood Solutions Fair in Toronto it became clear that he is perhaps the material’s greatest proselytizer , both in his speaking and in his body of work. He makes an audacious claim:
Wood is the most technologically advanced material that we can build with.
I asked Green to speak about this in a little more detail in a brief, noisy interview. He notes that architects are stuck in a glass and steel mindset, and that man-made materials are nowhere near as good as what Mother Nature has made. He wonders why sticking solar panels on the roof of a concrete or steel building is considered green when the actual building is made of materials that are not. Green says that the culture of concrete peaked with Le Corbusier in 1929 and steel with Mies Van Der Rohe in 1950; now is the time for wood.
The Earth grows our food; The earth can grow our homes. It’s an ethical change that we have to go through.
He is right; there are millions of hectares of wood in North America dying right now from the onslaught of the Mountain Pine Beetle; it is almost unethical to use anything else. But innovation in architecture is incredibly slow; the building codes are not performance based, so change takes years, and we have to “change society’s perception of what is possible.”
Michael Green’s work certainly is a testament to wood; this atrium in the North Vancouver City Hall is a clever use of large panels of laminated strand lumber that is normally cut up for lintels and beams. Green tells Wood Solutions:
Engineered structural timber materials with many applications have emerged from the realisation that we can chop wood up and glue it back together; that we can use the fibre, which is the basis of wood, to its best advantage. For example, we used jumbo sheets of LSL (laminated strand lumber), which is made from compressed timber waste, to construct a large building very quickly. This was the North Vancouver City Hall project, where we cross laminated three sheets measuring 12 by four metres to create a beautiful wood structure that is also exposed as its ceiling.
Also dear to my heart is Green’s attitude about learning from the past.
More broadly in our architectural practice, we started to look around at existing timber structures and ask, “How can we learn from the past?” For example, at the turn of the 20th Century the timber barn on the Vanderbilt family farm in Vermont was the single largest volume space in the United States. The 37-metre high wooden Church of Transfiguration in Russia that was built in the 17th Century is still standing. When we started renovating a 100-year old building in Vancouver’s Chinatown we discovered that all the walls were made with ‘mass timber’, which was common practice at that time. We saw that we could learn from other cultures about their building practices and traditions to improve our own work. We also discovered that we build with wood now pretty much the same way as we did 500 years ago.
As for Green’s 30 storey wood towers, he says that he picked that number for its impact; had he said ten storeys, people might not have paid attention. Many thought he was nuts, but now major American architectural firms are in serious discussions with him about building wood towers for offices and residential projects. We are going to be hearing a lot more about tall wood, and a lot more about Michael Green.