Skyscrapers made of wood and plastic? A look at new construction materials

Whether for the core, shell or anything in between, there’s always a lot of discussion surrounding the search for optimal building construction materials.

For over a century now, we’ve been relying on steel and concrete to carry out the load-bearing duties in skyscrapers, but could wood possibly do the job just as well, or is it just too weak and flammable? And what’s the next big thing for building shells?

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PLP has proposed the 80-story “Oakwood Tower” as London’s first plyscraper

Replacing steel & concrete with timber?

Currently, no matter where you are in the world, almost every skyscraper is mostly made of concrete, steel or both. The effectiveness of these materials is non-debatable, and their sustainability scorecard is continuously improving. Some might be surprised that one of the most feasible alternatives is wood; contrary to unqualified speculation that wooden skyscrapers, or “plyscrapers”, would be a fire hazard and could never match the material properties of concrete and steel.

PLP has proposed the 80-story “Oakwood Tower” as London’s first plyscraper
© Cambridge University

CLT (cross-laminated timber)

Those who think that a skyscraper could never be built out of wood should take a look at cross-laminated timber (CLT). Developed in Austria and Germany in the 1990s, these massive wood panels are becoming much more common in building construction. The idea behind CLT is quite similar to plywood but uses thick wood planks instead of thin layers. The resulting massive panels allow architects to create tall wood buildings that are every bit as strong and fire-resistant as ones made of concrete. With its great strength, good fire-resistance and carbon-capturing properties, CLT offers many benefits. CLT buildings, for example, require less foundation work as the resulting structures are much lighter. The actual construction process is also much faster and quieter than traditional construction, which is something the neighbors will appreciate.

Answers to common tall timber concerns:

Answers to common tall timber concerns Answers to common tall timber concerns
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Source: Michael Green of Michael Green Architecture in a TED Talk

Other structural innovations

Wood, particularly CLT, looks like it might be the next big thing in building construction. But it’s not the only material that shows promise. Below URBAN HUB highlights some other innovative construction materials.

Bamboo

Bamboo is incredibly strong and, therefore, already commonly used for scaffolding in Asia. It boasts lightness, high tensile strength, and rapid renewability. Could it be the next big thing in building construction?

Bamboo skyscraper design by CRG Architects. Credits: http://www.crgarchitects.com

Structural 3D printing (additive manufacturing)

Although 3D printing (also called additive manufacturing) is a technique rather than a material, it still relevant to the discussion because printers have been developed to produce concrete or polymer panels, modules and even complete structures. In 2016, the world’s first, full-sized 3D printed house was completed in just 45 days in Beijing, China.

3D printed house by HuaShang Tengda (Photo Credit: www.inhabitat.com)

Bioplastics

Bioplastics are durable polymers made from renewable biomass rather than petroleum. This inexpensive material, which can be used in combination with 3D printing, is fully biodegradable and recyclable.

ArboSkin Pavilion by ITKE in Stuttgart, Germany (Photo Credit: www.curbed.com)

Self-healing concrete

Self-healing concrete is embedded with bacteria that produce limestone when water enters a crack. The bacteria-generated limestone eventually seals the crack and eliminates the need for costly maintenance. It would extend the useful life of concrete, thus improving its sustainability.

Will concrete someday repair itself?

World Green Building Trends 2016 SmartMarket Report FINAL.pdf

Shipping containers!?

CRG Architects have come up with a design that suggests a new approach to upcycling shipping containers – by using them to create a skyscraper.

CRG Architects’ container-scraper. (Credits: http://www.crgarchitects.com)

Non-structural materials

There are also a lot of key materials used for façade, insulation, and other components which make up a building’s basic core and shell design. And there’s room for innovation here, too.

Solar-thermal cladding

Solar-thermal panels can be used on the outer walls of buildings to collect solar heat and warm buildings, particularly in colder climate zones.

Retrofit of Place Nolin in Ontario, Canada, by SolarWall. (Photo Credit: www.solarwall.com)

Photovoltaic glazing

A novel idea: if skyscrapers have so much glass, why not make glass that collects solar energy? Buildings with fully glazed curtain walls could potentially use 100 percent of their exteriors to generate solar power with photovoltaic glazing.

The “Dubai Frame”, an innovative building with PV glass   The “Dubai Frame”, an innovative building with PV glass  
The “Dubai Frame”, an innovative building with PV glass  

Pervious concrete

Pervious (or permeable) concrete can absorb large amounts of water as it falls. The technology could be utilized for the roofs of tall buildings to collect and reuse rainwater. It could also be a solution for a building’s parking facilities and surrounding campus to improve storm water management.

And the list goes on

This list is only a selection of some of the most interesting new materials solutions on or coming to the market. URBAN HUB will continue to report on ongoing innovations in the materials that make up the buildings we live, work and play in.

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