Vancouver-based architect Michael Green speaks with AD about the role of wood in architecture and why the U.S. is poised for a big movement in sustainable building.
Concrete and steel have ruled skyscraper construction for the better part of a century. But in recent years wood has been reengineered to be as light and strong as its industrial-age counterparts, enabling a boom in large-scale timber structures that look nothing like a cabin in the woods. At the forefront of the mass timber movement is Michael Green, whose Vancouver firm, Michael Green Architecture, is responsible for buildings like Minneapolis’s T3, one of the tallest timber buildings in the United States. Green and the developer Lotus Equity Group recently unveiled plans for a new ten-story timber building to anchor the Riverfront Square redevelopment in Newark, New Jersey. When it’s built, the 500,000-square-foot commercial building will be one of the largest timber projects in the U.S. to date. AD spoke to Green about his Newark building and what it signals for mass timber in the future.
Architectural Digest: You just revealed plans for a ten-story wooden commercial tower in Newark. In what ways is this pushing the mass timber movement forward?
Michael Green: The big step forward right now is scale. The big change is height. We’re now moving out of the realm of traditional class-four construction that T3 was, which allowed six stories of wood over one story of concrete, and now we’re talking about transitioning to ten stories and being able to really do what mass timber is meant to do—which is demonstrate how it works in the new world of engineering.
AD: What’s enabling this surge in scale?
MG: Time has been important. The other [factor] is that the building codes are changing in the U.S. That’s still an ongoing conversation, but there’s a goal to allow buildings potentially up to 20 stories tall, if the code passes in 2021 to allow it. The big challenge and opportunity is that the first projects are always the groundbreaking ones, and they’re always the hardest ones to pull off. It requires the will of a visionary developer. It also requires the will of a community that understands that they want to be part of the next generation, not part of the last. You start to see it become a more political discussion. That’s important, and it adds some complexity, but it’s something we’re really confident we can work through.
AD: What is the hesitation from politicians, cities, and developers when it comes to building with mass timbers?
MG: There are a couple things. One is fear of the new. We’re generally a conservative society when it comes to building science and trying new things, and that’s generally a good thing. That ensures we cross T’s, dot I’s, and make everything safe. That’s how codes are written; that’s how politicians can and should think. That said, we can’t wait for decades to fix problems we know we have. Those problems include the impact on climate from building, but we also need to advance the cause of affordability and human health and well-being. Those are issues that aren’t talked about as much but are becoming increasingly relevant to the wood building movement. You’re straining to see really revolutionary companies rethinking things. The disruption that came to other industries, like [with] Uber and Airbnb, are now coming to construction. By really rethinking the model of building we can dramatically reduce the cost of construction and therefore reach far more people with quality buildings.
AD: Is it really cheaper to build with wood?
MG: Currently, the answer is not cheaper, but probably equivalent. In the near future it will absolutely be cheaper. And with new technologies with how we’re making buildings. Wood itself is dollar for dollar more expensive than steel or concrete. The difference is the way the building is put together. It means you can cut the panels more accurately than you can cut steel or pour concrete, all in a factory. Then on the job site it comes together extremely quickly. You can shave many months off the timeline of construction. Groups like Katerra, which is a design construction firm, are really reinventing the process around offsite construction. Their ambition is to drop the cost in residential building by 30 percent by changing the model of construction. I definitely think these buildings will be significantly cheaper than competitors’ down the road, but it takes a few to prove the case and it takes some time for the industry to grow up around innovation, and that’s where we are right now.
AD: So it sounds like mass timber is finally hitting its stride.
MG: In some countries like France it’s become the mainstream way of building, and that’s because public policy is shifting towards carbon-sensitive materials. There, it seems like every project that pops up is mass timber. We have five going on in Paris right now. You see these slight tipping points, and right now it feels like the U.S. is at that tipping point where the floodgates are opening. We’re working with Silicon Valley companies that are looking at doing it; we’re seeing a lot of interest in it. I always look at this as a stepping-stone process. The project in Newark is really a major stepping stone because of its scale, its location, and because it’s ahead of the curve.
AD: Why is the U.S. catching up?
MG: It’s a lot about political will. France came out of Cop 21 and said, “We’re going to lead the climate agenda.” That’s a huge change of political will, and they don’t really have a wood industry in France. There’s absolutely no reason the U.S. can’t lead the world on this conversation. Some of the technology companies we’re working with are definitely interested in leading the world. I don’t think it’ll take long for the U.S. to be on top in this movement.
AD: What’s exciting to you about timber, formally speaking?
MG: The designs of most of my buildings are quite modest and appropriately modest for their neighborhood. They’re not trying to be the most gregarious building on the block with crazy curved shapes and stuff. They don’t need to be. The elegance of a wood building is the wood itself. For me, the ability to create a beautiful, simple space that’s really warm and friendly and comfortable for the people using the building is where my enthusiasm is at. It’s hard to do simple. It’s hard to allow materials to be themselves. But that was the essence of modernism. That’s what icons like Mies van der Rohe, Louis Kahn, and Corbusier believed, each in their own material. Their ambition was to let the material be itself and not let the architecture overpower the material. For me, that’s what I love about wood. Wood just needs to be wood.
AD: It sounds like it’s about respecting the inherent constraints of wood?
MG: Yes, although you can push wood in incredible ways to make really ambitious things with it formwise. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. This goes to more of my personal philosophy of how we make buildings. I’m a believer that we need to build affordably and respectfully and create great space that’s a vessel for people, not just great space that’s great space unto itself. We could do more with the wood. I just don’t think we should with many of the buildings we’re involved with. In the case of this one [in Newark], it’s doing exactly what it should do to make a great building. And asking more of it by pushing some technological boundaries for the hell of it just doesn’t make sense to me at all.
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