Getting wood over wood at The Economist

Part of the decline of The Economist, aside from the fact its employees write drivel, is its wholesale adoption of the environmentalist religion. With their latest video they seem to be plumbing new depths of woo-embracement:

The answer, of course, is no: wood has been used as a construction material since the dawn of time, and in the modern age there is probably not a thing we don’t know about it. Concrete and steel replaced wood for very good reasons, and unless wood has undergone some revolutionary step-change (e.g. trees grown with carbon-fibre grafted into them), those reasons still apply. If it made technological sense to use wood instead of steel, people would be doing it. If it made economic sense, the same would be true. But let’s take a look at the video (I’ll paraphrase rather than write the whole transcript).

0:25 The world’s population is increasing, by 2050 it will be 10bn most of whom will be living in cities in skyscrapers with a large carbon footprint.

The video shows Tokyo and other developed world cities, but almost all that population growth will come from Africa. Are they going to be living in high rises? Having seen the sprawling shanty towns of Lagos in person, I doubt it. And if “carbon footprints” are a problem, maybe its time to stop subsidising that population explosion in Africa? One of the main reasons Nigeria’s population is exploding is the lack of reliable electricity, which in turn is a direct result of corrupt government practices. What I’m trying to say is, if increasing populations are a concern, building materials are an odd thing to focus on.

0:30 Our view is all buildings should be made from timber, and we should look at steel and concrete as we do diesel and petrol.

I have no idea who this chap is, but he’s looking at a Landcruiser and trying to say a horse would be better. I suspect he’s saying this because his salary depends on it.

0:44 I think it’s realistic someone will build a wooden skyscraper in the coming years. There is a lot of potential that is unrealised for using timber at a very large scale.

It’s as if engineers are unaware of wood’s limitations in compression. Hell, even the Romans knew over a certain size you had to use stone and concrete.

1:00 Throughout history buildings have been made of wood But it has one drawback, it acts as kindling.

Don’t ever say Economist videos aren’t informative.

1:32 If concrete were ever to arrive as a new material on “Dragon’s Den”…but then you say we need a whole new fleet of trucks to move it around…

You can tell this guy is an academic. Firstly, there are transport costs associated with wood; they don’t grow trees on potential building sites and wait a hundred years. Secondly, the cost savings associated with using concrete obliterates the additional cost of needing specialist concrete trucks. It’s one thing to play devil’s advocate for some future hypothetical, but this guy is doing it for something that’s already happened: he’s already been proven wrong.

1:51 I don’t think it would be a compelling case.

The richest man in Africa is a Nigerian called Aliko Dangote; the bulk of his wealth comes from his owning Africa’s largest cement company. The invention of concrete revolutionised construction, and made an awful lot of people incredibly rich. But here we have an academic saying if it came along nowadays, nobody would be interested because you need to add steel and buy some specialist trucks.

1:58 Concrete and steel are costly to produce and heavy to transport.

Compared to what? This is like saying the weather is good.

2:05 Wood, however, can be grown sustainably and is lighter than concrete.

Weight doesn’t matter much in buildings, because they tend to be stationary objects supported by the ground. You also have a lot of glass curtain walling these days. If weight is a concern you use steel – as the Manhattan skyline nicely demonstrates. Insofar as transportation costs go, aggregate can be shipped cheaply in bulk from anywhere, and you can install a concrete batch plant on or near to the construction site. A someone who lived in Dubai during the construction boom, I saw a lot of this.

2:07 And crucially, as trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air, locking it into the timber.

This is crucial? Not to construction considerations it isn’t. If you want trees to absorb carbon dioxide then plant more trees, but to put this forward as an advantage for using wood in construction? You might as well say forests are nice places to walk a dog. In any case, unless these buildings will stand for centuries, at some point the wood will rot or burn releasing all that carbon dioxide into the atmosphere anyway. Why not leave the trees standing?

2:18 One study showed that by using timber to construction a 125-metre skyscraper could reduce the building’s carbon footprint by up to 75%.

One study…could…by up to. Well I don’t know about you, but I’m convinced! Note all this assumes a building’s “carbon footprint” is something we should be concerned about.

2:42 Wood isn’t strong enough to build high, but engineers have come up with a solution: cross-lamination.

Plywood?

2:45 It’s cross laminated so layers of wood are glued at 90-degrees to one another.

Plywood!

3:17 But what about fire?

They demonstrate how a skyscraper made from wood will withstand a fire by holding a blowtorch to a piece of plywood before claiming it will extinguish itself after losing “some structural mass”.

3:25 We’ve actually seen steel roofs collapse in fires when wooden ones have not.

Assuming this is true, this is an argument for making sheds from wood, not skyscrapers.

3:52 Once these wooden panels arrive on site we’re building a floor a week.

Right, but it’s essentially a 5-storey plywood box. Are you sure this method is going to work for skyscrapers with 50 plus floors?

3:57 This is maybe twice as fast as concrete.

The guys in Dubai were pouring a floor every few days. I’d like to see how fast these wooden panels go in when they’re a hundred metres above the pavement.

4:23 Andrew and his collagues designed Britain’s first wooden high-rise apartment block.

It’s ten floors, hardly high-rise.

4:51 As yet, nobody has used CLT (plywood) beyond 55 metres.

The building they refer to is Brock Commons tower in Vancouver:

The structure is concealed behind drywall and concrete topping, mainly to comply with the accepted fire-safety codes and consequently speed up approval from building authorities.

So it needs concrete to stop it turning into a matchbox, incinerating everyone inside. But wait, what’s this?

Due to concerns about structural stability, the American Wood Council and the International Code Council currently limit wood structures to a maximum of six stories above grade, depending on occupancy type.

For good reasons, I’d imagine.

To reach its height of 18 stories, Brock Commons used a slightly different approach. It follows in the shoes of the supertall skyscrapers we’ve seen cropping up across Asia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which use a central structural core to take the stress off of the building’s exterior.

Oh! What type of central core?

Two concrete “trunks” on a concrete podium form the core of the structure, with the rest of its 18 stories being constructed of cross-laminated timber (CLT) flooring and glue-laminated timber (GLT, or glulam) columns.

So this groundbreaking tower block which demonstrates the viability of wooden skyscrapers is held up by two, bog-standard concrete cores? The Economist never mentioned that.

This entire video is basically a puff-piece for a London-based architectural firm with its eye no doubt on government monies earmarked for eye-catching green “solutions”. Wood can be used effectively for construction, but it has severe limitations which are well known: warping due to heat, rotting due to damp, termites, separation of lamination with time – and the ubiquitous fire hazard. I’d love to see how well this Brock Commons tower is holding up in a decade’s time, and hear it from the poor sods who have to live in it, not the architects. This is before we even address such issues as increased land use to grow the trees, not to mention the wastage. The good thing about steel and concrete is it can be moulded to the shape you want without wastage, but wood has the tendency to be grown tree-shaped and from there you need to chop, saw, shave, and sand it into something useful – all of which creates mountains of waste product (when I was a kid, timber merchants used to give away wood shavings and sawdust for free). So what happens to that?

How many trees occupying how much land are needed to build a 100m building, and how much waste is involved? And how much chemical treatment does the wood require? Some numbers would have been nice, but this is The Economist: when it comes to the environment they sound more like The Watchtower.

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24 thoughts on “Getting wood over wood at The Economist

  1. The environmental nonsense goes hand-in-hand with Brexit nonsense. The Economist has always suffered from being well written, but poorly informed, but in recent years they’ve fallen into the abyss of derangement on the populist problems of today. They’ve never seen a problem that they do not want to make worse by espousing the conventional wisdom of the global chattering classes.

  2. The Economist, like the Guardian, is written by journalists who have no grasp of numbers.

    Google has been around for nearly two decades now, and the various search filters mean you can identify timber-frames buildings that were built back then, and compare with how they perform today. That said, I can’t find much in the way of timber high-rises that have gone spectacularly wrong.

    Best I’ve found so far:

    “Another issue is that this fire safety principle of compartmentalisation – ensuring a blaze in one flat does not spread – can be undermined later by something as simple as a resident drilling holes in a wall to mount shelves or a TV.”

    “One [timber] block in Manchester had to be demolished six days after a fire broke out so fire crews could be certain it was fully extinguished.”

    “Fires have apparently been started in timber-framed wall cavities by faulty electrical wiring, by plumbers soldering pipe work, and even by the heat generated when holes were drilled to install a satellite dish.”

    The key advantage of timber over brick is that you don’t have to pay expensive brickies, apparently. Timber can be partly prefabbed, like a Huf Haus. But I’m straying far outside my area of expertise here.

  3. Back in the 70s, The Goodies did a skit on how the media would handle the discovery of a “new” super-material called string. It seems that the Economist is stepping into comedy territory here

  4. Timber is good for medium-rise in earthquake zones. Concrete really doesn’t flex even a little bit.

    Very little of the world needs genuine high rise. Certainly not Africa.

    The market will sort it out.

  5. We’ve actually seen steel roofs collapse in fires when wooden ones have not.

    Are they comparing the same fires here? For steel to soften sufficiently to collapse you need a fucking hot fire. Is he really saying wood will last longer in such a fire than steel?

    The world’s population is increasing, by 2050 it will be 10bn most of whom will be living in cities in skyscrapers with a large carbon footprint.

    Skyscrapers have a ‘large’ “carbon footprint” because a they are large and a large number of people live in them. Per capita, however, a skyscraper will have a substantially lower “carbon footprint” than that same population spread over individual dwellings.

    I gave up reading the Economist years and years ago.

  6. “almost all that population growth will come from Africa. Are they going to be living in high rises?”

    Most likely, yes: in Grenfell Tower etc.

  7. Here, we know a bit about earthquakes, fires and high rise. Japanese domestic building regs allow two stories only in timber frame. Most of the homes in my town are three stories. Most have reinforced concrete for the ground floor plus timber for the next two. Some have steel frame for the ground floor plus timber.

    We have three floors, all steel frame. In an earthquake it whips like a dominatrix but it stays up.

  8. almost all…population growth will come from Africa

    one of the main reasons Nigeria’s population is exploding is the lack of reliable electricity

    Having seen the demographic numbers, but not an explanation as to why Africa’s population is booming and why now, I’d guess better nutrition and the adoption of modern technology. I have no idea what you mean by lack of electricity leading to a boom, admittedly. It’s difficult to find opinions online about Africa that aren’t dripping with either soft or hard bigotry, so any even-handed analysis anyone can recommend would be appreciated.

  9. You’re right about the better nutrition, that’s a huge part of it.

    I have no idea what you mean by lack of electricity leading to a boom, admittedly

    What do you suppose there is to do for entertainment in a Nigerian shack once the sun sets around 7-8pm without electricity?

  10. Heaven forbid I should tell an engineer his job. But. You have heard of glulam beams, haven’t you? Cable tensioned plywood composites?

    And as far as fire risk is concerned, steel & concrete present much more problems than wood structures. A heavy solid wood structural member can survive an hour or more in a fire without major loss of strength. An equivalent unprotected steel beam only minutes. Structural concrete is extremely vulnerable to high temperatures.

    And weight is important in any building design. The weight of the building itself contributes a major proportion of the structural loading. The design of the Tour Eiffel gives an excellent example of how that works

  11. You have heard of glulam beams, haven’t you? Cable tensioned plywood composites?

    No, but I’m not claiming wood is useless: I’m saying it is an unsuitable material from which to build skyscrapers.

    A heavy solid wood structural member can survive an hour or more in a fire without major loss of strength. An equivalent unprotected steel beam only minutes.

    That would depend heavily on the temperatures (the use of wood versus steel scaffolding boards is a topic of much debate in the oil and gas business). And who the hell would install an unprotected beam in a building?

    And weight is important in any building design.

    It’s important in that it must be considered, but it’s not a driving factor. The tallest building in the world, Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, is made from concrete not steel. Why? Because concrete is cheaper, provided you have cheap labour which Dubai does. If the weight of skyscrapers was a major concern they’d be – like aircraft – made from lighter but more expensive materials. And the Burj Khalifa would be made from steel.

  12. What do you suppose there is to do for entertainment in a Nigerian shack once the sun sets around 7-8pm without electricity?

    Settle down for a nice game of Scrabble by candle light? =)

  13. In economic parlance, children and pensions are substitutable goods. Old age is a bummer if you don’t have one or the other.
    The second most important reason for population booms is high levels of violence. (Just in case.)
    Check out birth rates by country.

  14. It’s all about the ownership of the Economist and they are definetly warmists.

    The article is total crap in all aspects.

    I like timber as a building product, housing, beams even piles and the like but to suggest what the article does is sheer stupidity.

    By the way my two storey house is all wood, that’s me second like that and the way that my wife and like it.

    This timber building shown below is the dogs bollocks though when it comes to leading timber technology.

    First Timber Arrives at the World’s largest Engineered Timber Office Building

  15. This timber building shown below is the dogs bollocks though when it comes to leading timber technology.

    It looks nice, but we’ll have to see how it performs over a decade or so before we get too excited. British schools underwent groundbreaking design changes in the 1970s to much fanfare – flat roofs, giant windows, cast concrete – and they were so bad people my age will never forget them.

  16. Much past six storeys and the economics of wood starts to implode. In most cases you end up sticking just as much drywall / gypsum board in the building to protect the structure as you would a steel building.
    Indeed heavy timber construction has good solid uses and it can be fireproof to a limited extent but that is for thick wood, greater than 8″ at least.
    Another often forgotten cost of large wood structures is the interim fire protection during construction itself. You need the drywall to protect structure from fire, you also need functioning sprinkler systems and these don’t come online until the building has its final commissioning. Until then it generally has its pants down, while it happens to be filled with the most dangerous activities it will endure in its entire life span such as welding, wiring, space heaters in winter and so on. So until a wood building is zipped up and turned on its quite vulnerable. As such insurance costs go up during construction, if you can even get the insurance.
    Concrete is very handy to the extent that it is fire protection once cast over steel rebar.
    Additionally, for all the bitching about BPA in baby bottles, if your average green had any idea how many Amines, AKA polymers from BPA, are in epoxy and other laminating glues they would melt their feathers. In our office we have a saying about chemicals in that industry, the more dangerous it is, the better its likely to work.
    don’t get me wrong, I love love love wood as a construction material, but it has a time and a place. as noted, the market will sort it out.

  17. Ever notice that if it is something that modern society uses wood for we are told we have to stop using wood to protect the environment, but if it is something we don’t use wood for we are told we should use it?

  18. “The building they refer to is Brock Commons tower in Vancouver:

    The structure is concealed behind drywall and concrete topping, mainly to comply with the accepted fire-safety codes and consequently speed up approval from building authorities.”

    Not just that, but if you look at the pictures in the link you see that its also got two big *concrete* towers running through each side that the wood structure is supported by.

    Sort of defeats the purpose if your central supporting structures are going to be steel/cement (like they will be for a skyscraper) and then making each level out of wood seems to just be a choice of wasting a lot more of your floorspace on support structure – exactly the thing you don’t want to do as the *point* of a skyscraper is maximizing usable floorspace while minimizing ground footprint.

  19. Next week in the Economist: London’s strained sewage-treatment capacity would be adequate for decades more if we all simply urinated in the alleys instead of into toilets.

  20. Progressive politics ruin everything.

    The economicst has been on the wrong of our major issues.

    Global Warming even if you accept IPCC reports you can see a mild carbon tax is all that might be needed no bureaucrats, no planning, no make rick quick schemes.

    If you like the EU you know it needs reform.

    If you like Hilkary over Donald you know nothing.

    This is a great magazine dying.

  21. “Timber is good for medium-rise in earthquake zones.”
    I once heard a Civil Engineering professor say it was better to be in a wood, rather than masonry, structure during an earthquake. Someone asked, “Is the wood building stronger?”
    “No,” the prof replied. “it’s easier to dig you out of the rubble.”

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