Carbon Neutral Wood Construction: Creating Diversity in China
GIGA is catalyzing research for the construction of a carbon neutral, multi-story wood building in China. The project brings together two of the most influential research institutes in China and North America - SRIBS and FP Innovation - to accelerate the adoption of wood construction in China through testing and building code development. The building is to be constructed on the eco-campus of the Shanghai Research Institute of Building Sciences.
China has one of the oldest and richest cultural histories of building with wood. Despite this, wood is currently absent from construction as a scalable structural solution: Modern China is built entirely of concrete, brick and steel.
Wood was made illegal in China several decades ago due to fire regulations. Yet, as many other countries have shown, modern wood construction withstands fire as well as does concrete, brick and steel. In some instances it does even better. The real challenge with wood construction has been one of scale: it has been ill-suited for the lower-cost, multistory buildings needed in the modern Middle Kingdom. This is about to change.
Wood buildings around the world have recently been getting a lot of attention as they continue to reach new heights, growing rapidly from 6 to 10, 12 and 14 stories. In Canada and the U.S. wood towers are already being engineered to reach 40 stories, with firms like MGA and SOM pushing the boundaries of design.
Although these projects are fascinating they come with their own set of challenges. Perhaps more relevant in the short to mid-term is the evolution of common 4-6 story buildings. Not only do these ubiquitous buildings make up a large percentage of the real-estate in China and the rest of the world, they are also shifting to wood construction. In Canada for instance, this type of building is becoming standard and the technology could be game-changing for China.
Of all the structural materials wood is the only one that starts out carbon negative. In other words the production of structural timber absorbs CO2, releasing it again only decades later. For a country seeking to rapidly manage it's carbon emissions this is a critical quality: wood structures open the door to achieving carbon goals cost-effectively, in particular light wood framing.
However, the real revolution is not so much in the shorter term benefits of carbon sequestration. Rather, they are in the longer-term impact on forestry and carbon management in China. For the first generation of structures, wood will need to be imported just like the majority of construction resources. This is not a viable long-term solution. However, it does present the opportunity to catalyze a forestry economy in China; an economy in which it makes sense to invest in the regeneration and management of forests. This economy would not only be financially renewable, it would also sequester carbon and generate oxygen as a byproduct. It could also support an increase in biodiversity compared to existing standards.
Of course, wood construction will not solve all of our construction challenges. Far from it. If we have learned anything from the way nature designs it is that nothing is more important than diversity: it is impossible for one species to fill all the niches in an ecosystem and survive. The same is true for our construction ecosystem: it is impossible to solve all problems with just one structural solution.
Concrete, wood, steel, brick and rammed-earth excel at solving different problems in different contexts. Allow them to coexist and they learn to optimize and specialize. Wood has simply been a missing piece of the puzzle for far too long. It's addition to the palette of solutions will help stimulate innovation in green building across the entire industry, including carbon management.