When the first skyscraper was built in Chicago following the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, it was constructed over the ashes of timber buildings that had come before it. It was made from steel and masonry, which was seen as a welcome, noncombustible solution to the city’s ills. Its architects could never have imagined that nearly 150 years later, a new realization of the skyscraper would bring things full circle, re-introducing the humble timber beam into the urban environment as a progressive building material.
While you hear the sound of Alicia Keys singing the protracted New York, think about the fact that 20th-Century New York was the city most famously associated with the skyscraper. Like Chicago, the city endured major fires in its history, and by the early 1900s timber buildings were no longer being constructed.
However, what was old is new again, and New York is welcoming a 21st-Century timber building this year in Brooklyn, in the form of two new low-rise blocks: 320 and 360 Wythe.
The office and retail space is located in the city’s trendy Williamsburg neighborhood, and it’s the first timber building to be constructed in the city in more than a century.
New York has suffered a somewhat fraught return to brick and beam. In 2015, plans emerged to construct a 10-story timber condominium on West 18th Street, but the project was never completed.
“We had a friend who worked for several years on a timber residential building in Manhattan, who was ultimately stymied by New York City code,” explains Mick Walsdorf, Partner at Flank, the design and development firm behind the Wythe project. “We heard about this and became interested in new timber construction. We had also bought a Williamsburg zoning area, so everything aligned for us to build the development.”
Across Europe, timber is rising to prominence as a more sustainable, attractive way to build multi-story structures.
Although this is a first for New York, Flank’s Wythe buildings are in good company. Across Europe, timber is rising to prominence as a more sustainable, attractive way to build multi-story structures. In the U.S., the Wythe buildings are preceded by the seven-story T3 building in Minneapolis, which opened in 2016. There is also the 12-story Framework building being constructed in Portland, Oregon.
The renewed interest in wood as a building material for skyscrapers comes thanks to the introduction of new forms of wood that are strong, sustainable and, most importantly, remarkably fireproof.
“In the past, big beams were solid, large-diameter trees—you’ll see this in buildings in Tribeca,” explains Walsdorf. “With new technology, small trees can be cross-laminated like strips, building up into slabs.” These new laminated timbers have been known to perform better than steel when exposed to high temperatures.
Wood is advantageous as a building material in many ways. Firstly, it is a naturally sustainable material, especially when sourced correctly.
“We buy our wood from forests grown on sustainable management land set aside by the Canadian government,” Walsdorf explains. Concrete and steel are responsible for a significant portion of carbon emissions, while wood absorbs more CO2 than it emits. Timber is also light and takes much less time to build with, as it requires no drying time.
The thirst for timber construction seems to be part of a wider trend that seeks the natural feeling of warmth wood provides.
“People respond well to the wooden environment,” explains Walsdorf. “It has a nice aesthetic.”
Timber also plays in to the nostalgic aesthetic that is particularly popular in areas like Williamsburg. Just a few blocks away from Wythe Street, the reworking of Domino Sugar Refinery into a multi-structure development showcases the area’s commitment to mixing heritage with progress. The highlight of the project will be the adaptation of the old brick factory building and its legendary sign into an office block topped with a glass dome.
When designing the Wythe buildings, Flank took into account the brick buildings that define Williamsburg’s fabric. “The language is subtle,” Walsdorf explains. “We brought in brick detailing, but the building’s rhythm makes timber the highlight. There will be a brick façade with careful detailing, and wooden columns and ceilings will be exposed. It has a throwback feeling—a bit like yesteryear, but very crisp and clean. It’s a new-old building.”
If the rest of the world is any indication, timber construction is here to stay. Tokyo is already planning to build a 70-story wooden skyscraper. The 320 and 360 Wythe buildings show that embracing the past may just be the way forward.