Could the skyscrapers of the future be built from wood?

“Big Wood”, a planned wooden construction prototype in Chicago. Image: Michael Charters.

When skyscrapers first emerged, they used durable construction materials (reinforced steel, glass, concrete) that were, nonetheless, lighter and stronger than bricks or plaster. It was this that allowed them to rise far higher than any buildings that had come before – and the shiny and futuristic appearance that resulted became inseparable from the concept of “skyscraper”.

Today, though, the environmentally-unfriendly nature of these materials is leading some architects and urbanists to rethink skyscraper construction. They’re proposing going back to a rather more old-fashioned building material: wood.

From a piece at IT ProPortal:

While untreated beams of wood simply aren't strong enough to hold up the huge weight of high-rise buildings, a type of super-plywood has been developed to step up to the challenge. By gluing layers of low-grade softwood together to create timber panels, today's so-called "engineered timber" is more like what you'd find in Ikea flat-packed furniture than traditional sawn lumber. We've even got a nice moniker for the new breed of eco-friendly building: 'plyscrapers'.

Michael Green, a Canadian architect, is one of the biggest evangelists of wooden skyscrapers. He's written a 200-page instruction manual about wooden buildings, distributed for free, and spoke about the "necessity" of wooden skyscrapers in a TED Talk:

Almost half of our greenhouse gases are related to the building industry... The problem I see is that, ultimately, the clash of how we solve that problem of serving three billion people that need a home, and climate change, are a head-on collision about to happen.

So far, Melbourne's home to the tallest "plyscraper" in the world (a whopping 10 storeys). But this will soon be overtaken by a 14-storey wooden building under construction in Norway.

Melbourne's wooden high rise. Image: Lend Lease.

And there’s scope to go much, much taller. A study carried out by Skidmore, Owings & Merill, the architecture firm behind the Burj Khalifa and One World Trade Centre, concluded that a 125m tall skyscraper built mostly from timber would be structurally and economically feasible, and could reduce the building’s carbon footprint by 75 per cent.

There are still obstacles to overcome. If the practice becomes widespread, there’s the issue of deforestation to consider (though Green argues that the industry could develop “models for sustainable forestry”). And, of course, the elephant in the room – wood, unlike steel or concrete, is flammable. It might take the insurance industry a little while to get comfortable with the idea.


Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.

Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

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