There is a bucolic nostalgia about wood buildings. Structures built from wood tend to have a rustic, outdoorsy feel; very ski chalet, very grandparent’s cabin. Although the aesthetic and sentimental appeal of wood buildings lingers, it, like most nostalgia-tied imagery, has been antiquated, pushed aside in favor of the new. Or has it?
No chagrin can be placed on someone who believes building with wood is an obsolete practice given the current technology. For many, the argument that wood could be used as a permanent and wide-reaching material for multi-story buildings stops at the mere mention of wood’s inherent flammability. That’s the perception: steel and concrete can’t burn up like wood does, so why use anything but? Images of the Great Chicago Fire and other urban disasters conjure an unflattering and misguided view of how wood acts as a building material.
Recent studies at Oregon State University (a research institute in the heart of timber land), show that wood can surpass the structural standards placed on similar building materials for multi-story structures. Concrete is used to help bond joints in the wood, giving it a strength that rivals steel. Cross-Laminated Timber has set a new standard for strength, and has proven that there is still more that can be done with timber. Advancements like these have started a revolution of sorts, as architects and engineers begin to look at wood as the primary building material for structures in excess of twenty stories. As a result, building codes in most of North America are being reexamined to allow for taller wooden buildings.
The good news doesn’t stop there, though. Compared to the production of steel and concrete, harvesting, production, and building with wood produces 31% less CO2. Wooden structures also represent a massive carbon sink, one of the largest available for urban areas. This, in addition to massive replanting efforts by timber organizations, makes timber one of the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly building materials. Who could find a way to oppose that?
Well, one town did.
In the face of overwhelming data and research proving otherwise, the Atlanta suburb of Sandy Springs has banned wood construction in buildings more than three stories high and over 100,000 square feet claiming that the material’s combustive properties and lack of structural integrity creates an unsafe environment.
Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul asserts that the decision to ban certain wooden structures from being built in the town is purely in response to safety concerns regarding the material and that he does not feel his decision will hurt the overall Georgia timber industry, which has historically done very well in the area.
This refusal to acknowledge the advances in wood products and wooden buildings comes alongside a movement from the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association, whose “Build with Strength” campaign rails against wood as a building material. In a direct quote from NRMCA, “Wood burns, rots and molds, and that is not a product we want in schools, multi-family housing, or retirement homes.” The implication of wood as a dangerous building material has long been debunked, and only makes those who advocate against it appear foolish.