The case for wood

Element - - Business - By Sam Eich­blatt

Sus­tain­able, car­bon se­ques­ter­ing, flex­i­ble, strong. Wood is the per­fect build­ing ma­te­rial.

New Zealan­ders don’t have to look far to see the im­me­di­ate ben­e­fits of wood as a struc­tural el­e­ment in build­ing. The im­ages from Christchurch af­ter the earth­quakes de­tailed crum­bling ma­sonry, slabs of peel­ing brick ve­neer, the shock­ing sight of a city turned inside out.

Not all con­crete-and-steel build­ings fare badly in an earth­quake — but the older, and badly de­signed ones with­out re­in­forced ma­sonry in Can­ter­bury did. A re­port on the per­for­mance of res­i­den­tial houses in the Darfield area, car­ried out in the af­ter­math of the Septem­ber 4 earth­quakes by Prof. Andy Buchanan and Michael New­combe from the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury’s Depart­ment of Civil and Nat­u­ral Re­sources En­gi­neer­ing, dis­cov­ered that the build­ing stock — which is mostly light tim­ber frame con­struc­tion — per­formed well over­all in com­par­i­son to other ar­eas. Most da­m­age was caused by the col­lapse of ma­sonry chim­ney on older houses, and the set­tle­ment of foun­da­tions in ar­eas of soil liq­ue­fac­tion. Tim­ber con­struc­tion com­pany Lock­wood also re­ports its sup­port team had a hugely pos­i­tive re­sponse from homeowners in the re­gion af­ter both earth­quakes.

Per­haps it’s not sur­pris­ing that some­thing de­signed by na­ture, rather than man, is bet­ter able to with­stand a nat­u­ral event. The Ja­panese and Cal­i­for­ni­ans, like us, live on fault lines, and tend to­wards low-rise, wood-framed res­i­den­tial hous­ing. Lighter and more flex­i­ble than con­crete, and of­ten more cost-ef­fec­tive and quicker to build with, sus­tain­able wood is also the ul­ti­mate re­new­able re­source.

While tim­ber has al­ways been part of the con­struc­tion land­scape in Aotearoa, from the marae to the white weath­er­boards of colo­nial homes, con­tem­po­rary res­i­den­tial ar­chi­tec­ture is re­defin­ing the con­cept of wooden houses into some­thing that is less rus­tic, more revo­lu­tion­ary.

The lat­est win­ners of the Home of the Year award, Herbst Ar­chi­tects, have built their ca­reer on airy, light-filled wooden homes that make their in­hab­i­tants feel close to na­ture with­out com­pro­mis­ing the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment — the ma­jor­ity are on Great Bar­rier Is­land, and there­fore off the elec­tric­ity grid and largely self-sus­tain­ing. The award-win­ning Piha Bach — dubbed “Un­der Po­hutukawa”, as it sits in a grove of the na­tive trees — was, like the oth­ers, con­structed us­ing only sus­tain­able woods; mostly cedar and po­plar ply.

“We’re in­ter­ested in the patina that de­vel­ops through age, us­ing cedar that fades to drift­wood-grey colours, and let­ting na­ture do its thing, in­stead of plas­ti­cis­ing ev­ery­thing,” says prin­ci­pal Ni­cola Herbst.

Erected in 1876, Welling­ton’s old Govern­ment Build­ings are proof that wooden build­ings can stand the test of time, and larger projects in New Zealand are now also push­ing the lim­its of wood as a struc­tural en­tity, both func­tion­ally and aes­thet­i­cally — think Noel Lane Ar­chi­tect’s re­fur­bish­ment of the grand atrium at Auck­land Mu­seum, the award-win­ning Wait­omo Caves Vis­i­tor Cen­tre or Irving Smith Jack Ar­chi­tect’s NMIT Arts & Me­dia Build­ing in Nel­son, which was the re­sult of a gov­ern­mentspon­sored na­tional de­sign com­pe­ti­tion to en­cour­age the use of tim­ber in multi-level build­ings. Af­ter the 2008 earth­quake in L’Aquila, Italy, which left 65,000 peo­ple home­less, res­i­dents of the small city made it clear to the au­thor­i­ties that they did not want to re­turn to con­crete build­ings. The con­struc­tion in­dus­try there be­gan fo­cus­ing on tim­ber re­con­struc­tion — not only for sin­gle- or two­s­torey houses, but high-rise struc­tures. In other parts of the world, they’ve gone beyond post-earth­quake restora­tion and are de­sign­ing new build­ings com­pletely in wood, us­ing new tech­nol­ogy and wood treat­ments.

Van­cou­ver ar­chi­tect Michael Green, for ex­am­ple, is cur­rently build­ing a 30-storey “wood­scraper” as part of the Tall Wood project, a new breed of large, zero-car­bon build­ings that use wood as a cen­tral com­po­nent in Aus­tria, Nor­way, and most re­cently Mel­bourne (the Delta Build­ing). Green is us­ing mod­ern wood ma­te­ri­als made of wood fi­bres, which are stronger than sin­gle pieces of wood and elim­i­nate the need to cut down large trees. And, counter to pop­u­lar be­lief, heavy tim­ber com­po­nents pose no greater fire threat than un­treated steel.

From the marae to the white weath­er­boards of colo­nial homes, con­tem­po­rary res­i­den­tial ar­chi­tec­ture is re­defin­ing the con­cept of wooden houses into some­thing that is less

rus­tic, more revo­lu­tion­ary.

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