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.


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


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.


Monoglot Britain

Sometimes I love The Economist:

The advantages of being able to speak more than one tongue are so obvious that they scarcely need spelling out. Despite globalisation, not everyone everywhere yet speaks English, so fluency in a second language would enable monoglot Britons to talk to many more people than they can at present. They could conduct business with fewer misunderstandings. They would have fewer surprises in restaurants when they discovered they had inadvertently ordered brains in black butter or a portion of potted intestine.


The possibilities are limitless. Vacant negotiators would at last be privy to the meaning of the overheard asides uttered by their foreign counterparts before deals or treaties were closed. British footballers who play for foreign teams might, if they were not completely inarticulate in any language, be able to give interviews in the local tongue after the match. Journalists covering atrocities in darkest Africa and seeking the quotes so prized by editors back home might not have to ask, “Anyone here been raped and speak English?”


The Economist and Me

I have been a subscriber to The Economist for about 5 years now, and when I first started reading it I was impressed by its strong and principled editorial line and well researched articles.  Sadly, although its articles are still well researched, its editorial line in the last two years has gone from strong and principled to piss-weak and confused.

They have handled the Iraq war with about as much competence as the US state department.  Apparently, the decision to support the war split the editorial board right down the middle, and correspondingly upset a large swathe of its readership.  Yet as the Iraq project slipped from conventional war into chaos, the publication has all too obviously been trying desperately to regain some if its former credibility with those readers who opposed the war in the first place.  The problem is, rather than admitting they made a mistake or sticking to their guns, they have flim-flammed in the middle saying the decision to go to war was the right one, but all the problems thereafter are solely the fault of the Bush Adminstration, not the war itself.  This is not an unusual position to hold, but it is a weak one.

There is much to criticise the Bush administration for in its handling of post-war Iraq, but on the other hand much of this criticism is bollocks.  Chastising Bush for failing to predict and respond to every eventuality in Iraq is the stuff of academics and hack journalists.  For instance, we can all look back and say that something should have been done about the looting, but I don’t recall anyone predicting that Iraqi society would seize the opportunity to strip each other of their belongings, and ordering the US army to shoot any civilian it catches carrying a microwave would probably have caused the same critics to wet their pants with outrage.  I would much prefer that The Economist recognises that many of the failures in post-war Iraq could not have been predicted nor prepared for, and also acknowledges that wars are generally messy and things do sometimes go badly wrong.  Supporting the war per se and then criticising every aspect and outcome from an editorial office in London is not something I enjoy paying to read.

All that said, I still like The Economist.  Its writing style and turn of phrase, not to mention many of its articles, still make the subsription fee worth paying.  Take by way of example the concluding paragraph in a recent article on the battle of the sexes:

Modern professional life is dominated by management, which these days sets high store by emotional intelligence, empathy and communication. Wise chaps seeking professional advancement should therefore spend their free time with groups of women, boning up on how to undermine somebody’s confidence while pretending to boost it, and how to turn an entire lunch table against an absent colleague without saying a mean word.

Few mainstream publications, especially ones available worldwide, would express this point in such a way that it would make me laugh as I did when I first read that.  Imagine the dour manner in which some bitter old hag would address the subject in The Guardian.  I doubt I’d make it beyond the first paragraph.  Entertaining as well as informing is a good way of parting me from my cash.

I also enjoyed The Economist’s article on disinformation in the former Soviet Union, where they come across a mysterious outfit by the name of the International Council for Democratic Institutions and State Sovereignty (ICDISS) which released a report promoting independence for Transdniestria, the breakaway region of Moldova which is propped up by Russia:

[The ICDISS] has no address and no telephone number. Although its website, and an entry on a write-it-yourself encyclopedia, Wikipedia, claim that it was founded in 1999, there is no trace of its activities, or of its supposed staff members, in news databases or the internet before January this year. Since then, it seems to be solely involved in promoting Transdniestria. It claims to be based in America, but does not appear to be a charity there.

Its website is registered at a hotel address in Mexico, with a phone that does not answer, and operated from a server in Latvia. And that is positively illuminating compared with the report’s other supposed publisher, the Euro-Atlantic Joint Forum Contact Group, which seems to have no existence other than its logo.

The jovial, mocking tone is probably what I like best about The Economist.  If they manage to regain their editorial integrity at some point, they can be assured of my subscription for a good while yet.


Clique-ty Clique

Bill Emmott became editor of The Economist in 1993, and on March 31st this year retired from the post.

Bill Emmott was a graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford and will be replaced by John Micklethwait, who also went to Magdalen College, and before that Ampleforth.  The Economist‘s editor between 1974 and 1986 was Andrew Knight, who also went to Ampleforth and Oxford, only he was at Balliol College. 

The only editor to break this pattern was Rupert Pennant-Rea (1986-1993), who went to Manchester University.  Perhaps they were trying to raise standards?