Materiality is a significant factor in the built environment. Not only does the palette used have significant visual and/or aesthetic implications for the external envelope of a structure and its incorporation into its surroundings, but can also result in positive and/or negative interactions with these buildings on a personal level, whilst assisting long-term sustainability more generally.
Within the context of high-rise buildings, the choice of building material has traditionally included steel, iron and concrete, which has resulted in visually intriguing if not astounding structures. However, in recent years there has been a growing tendency toward experimentation with timber high-rise buildings – also known as ‘Plyscrapers’ – as a more sustainable and more socially beneficial material.
Considerations for timber structures
Although timber is amongst one of the oldest building materials, following devastation caused by the Great Fire of London in 1666, building regulations and more general stigma has restricted its use. However, the contemporary and innovative resurgence of timber can serve to reimagine its character and place within the urban environment, whilst doing so in a sustainable and aesthetically exciting way.
The recent BBC video ‘Will We All Live in ‘Plyscrapers’ in the Future?’ has considered interesting benefits concerning sustainability as a result of using timber for high-rise buildings. These include carbon capture, improved structural integrity using CLT (cross laminated timber), and reducing carbon emission by 4 %.
Timber elicits positive responses
In addition to ecological benefits, timber is commonly admired for effecting warmth, comfort, and positive physiological and psychological benefits. In addition to other health benefits, it helps users reconnect with nature. Further effects are widely acknowledged throughout the wider environment.
The Concise Townscape (Gordon Cullen, 1971) notes that ‘Trees and buildings have always borne a special relationship to each other … so great as to demand a reassessment of the relationship between the two … Today the art of bringing trees and buildings together is based on the tree lending its richness to buildings, and on buildings pointing out the architectural qualities of trees so that the two together make one ensemble.’
But more fundamentally – with respect to the use made of timber in individual buildings – Dezeen (November, 2015) notes that wood ‘… makes the most amazingly beautiful spaces. These are buildings that feel very good to be in…’
The reimagining of timber ensues
‘Plyscrapers’ have therefore begun to emerge from the English skyline. Such buildings include the 33-meter-high apartment block in Shoreditch by Hawkins Brown, and the nine-storey Murray Grove in Hackney by Waugh Thisleton. In 2016, a proposal was forwarded by PLP Architecture and researchers from Cambridge University’s Department of Architecture, which entailed a 300-meter-tall timber high-rise for the Barbican Estate.
The reimagining of a traditional material in this way results in a refreshing, dynamic, yet warm juxtaposition against today’s intensively glass, concrete and steel environment. This would undoubtedly elevate the urban experience from a perspective of streetscape, whilst creating visually engaging spaces that are also a pleasure to use whilst proving environmentally beneficial.
Gordon Cullen. The Concise Townscape. Oxford: Great Britain. 1971, p.168.