FRANCESCO RODELLA | Tungsteno
With its six storeys reaching 21 metres in the air, the Peñuelas Tower —less than 100 kilometres from Santiago de Chile— serves as a lookout point and, above all, as an experimental centre to investigate the response of this innovative structure in a real environment. While the first floor hosts students and technicians interested in getting to know the structure up close, laboratories have been set up on the second, third and fourth floors to study different characteristics of the wood. The fifth floor houses a small show flat that can be visited by the general public. The final aim of the project is "to perfect a new viable model for social housing," says Juan José Ugarte, an academic at the Catholic University and current president of CORMA. This trade association and the Centre for Innovation in Wood at the Catholic University are responsible for this project, together with the Chilean Ministry of Housing and Urban Development.
Although Chile is one of the Latin American countries most interested in exploring wood as an alternative to concrete and other traditional construction materials, the pioneers of this new architectural trend are found on the opposite side of the globe. According to Ugarte, in the last decade the construction of wooden houses with up to six floors has taken off in Canada and some Scandinavian countries, which have begun to "export their industrial capacity in this sector to areas like the United States and Oceania."
The most spectacular examples of this new trend in high-rise architecture can also be found in these countries. The tallest wooden building in the world is in Norway: the Mjøstårnet tower (18 storeys and 85.4 metres high), which houses a hotel, a restaurant, several apartments, offices and even a swimming pool. In Canada, there are some amazing wooden buildings, most notably the Brock Commons Tallwood House, a 53-metre high university student residence, completed in 2017 in Vancouver. Among the most ambitious ideas for the future is that of the Japanese company Sumitomo Forestry, which plans to build an impressive 350-metre wooden tower in Tokyo to commemorate the company's 350th anniversary in 2041.
Torre Peñuelas, the first 6-storey wooden structure in Chile, opens the way for Latin American countries to build in wood. Credit: BioBio Chile.
A safe and sustainable material
What features make this new architecture so attractive? Ugarte highlights ecological sustainability. The wood used comes from certified forests where each tree, when it reaches the end of its life and begins to emit carbon instead of absorbing it, is replaced with two young seedlings. Furthermore, according to the architect, this material physically captures CO2 —up to one tonne equivalent in each cubic metre— throughout the building's life. Another advantage is the comfort that wood constructions offer to their inhabitants. According to Ugarte, living in such environments helps to reduce anxiety and improve respiratory cycles, and comfortable temperatures are maintained with up to 40% less energy consumption.
Are wooden houses and skyscrapers as safe as traditional buildings? The proponents of this trend claim that they are. One key to achieving this is the use of novel technologies, they explain. In particular, there is the growing use of cross-laminated-timber (CLT) panels, made up of layers of wood glued together in alternating directions, which guarantees total safety in terms of structural stability, and resistance to fire, earthquakes and other external agents, says Ugarte. To this is added the experience gathered over many centuries: "There are wooden temples built during antiquity that are 12 storeys high and more than 1,000 years old," the Chilean specialist states.
Wood laminate allows buildings such as the Brock Commons Tallwood House (Vancouver) to be quickly lifted ensuring sustainability, but also strength and durability. Credit: Forestry Innovation Investment.
The wooden building market needs to achieve lower production costs and a broader demand before it becomes widespread, maintains the president of CORMA. In his opinion, the millennial generation may be among the most interested members of the public. By allowing buildings to be erected more quickly than those made of concrete —raising their height in an agile manner thanks to lightweight and easy-to-handle panels— this material also offers a response to an imperative need in many cities: the reorganisation of urban space to address the unstoppable growth of the population, as a result, among other causes, of migration from rural areas.
This new architecture is also gaining ground in Latin America, particularly in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, countries that are already working together in the sector and have academics, industrialists and public administrators dedicated to promoting it. In addition to the Peñuelas Tower, there are now other projects in the area, such as a neighbourhood of low-rise houses for vulnerable populations in northern Chile or a hotel located in an exclusive resort in Uruguay.
Elsewhere, meanwhile, new goals are being established at the top. In British Columbia, the Canadian province where Vancouver is located, the regulations have already been changed, raising the maximum number of storeys allowed in wooden buildings from six to twelve. A few years earlier, however, an exception was made in order to permit the construction of the 18-storey Brock Commons Tallwood House. Now, everything points to the fact that seeing new timber giants in this region of forests, lakes and mountain ranges will be increasingly common.