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Wood architecture: a possible sustainable future of living?

Flexible, sustainable, resistant. Many architects choose wood to build skyscrapers and residential complexes. A (sustainable) road in which Italy has been a trailblazer. But then…

It is about to happen. In a few months the world will have its first wooden skyscraper. It has “only” 12 floors and it is “only” 45 meters high. Yet some already talk about the Lever Architecture Framework Building, soon to be built in Portland, as the beginning of a revolution in architecture. An epochal change, with economic, ecological and urban effects. The equivalent, in the era of global warming, of the use of reinforced concrete in residential construction in 1884.

It may not be an exaggeration

Because the advantages of wood on other building materials are many and quantifiable. Cement production, for example, releases a quantity of CO2 into the atmosphere in a ratio of almost one to one. While wood grows in forests, that retain carbon dioxide. Of course, these must be sustainable: one tree must be planted for each cut one. But in Europe, forests mostly are: the regrowth is in fact 776 million m³ every year, with a withdrawal of only 490.

On top of this, there is the technical revolution

In fact the use of tech plywood allows the realization of ultra-rigid and insulating walls. And the construction, within the controlled environment of a factory, of entire sections homes sections. Which speeds up the delivery timing and improves quality. An example is the crossed lamellar (CLT, cross-laminated timber, in Italy X-Lam, invented in the 90s but included in the International Building Codes in 2015).

It is therefore no coincidence that wooden architectures are a hype

With dedicated roadshows (Wooddays, last October, also touched Rome), events for the general public (such as the Timber Rising exhibition at the Roca Gallery in London, until 19/05), and with visionary projects (the last, of Japanese Sumitomo Forestry: a tower of 350 meters high).

The real news is the use of wood for the structures

And in this case, its development proceeds as a domino effect. In Berlin, for example, the E3 condo, the first one made of 85% of wood was built in 2008 by Kaden-Klingbeil. And since then the number of lamellar buildings has grown at an annual rate of 18% in Germany. On the other hand, the experience of Patch 22 was vital in Holland. It is the tallest wooden building in the country, designed by Tom Frantzen. Built in 2014, it has been used to carry out rigorous tests that have demonstrated the fire resistance of solid wood. While in Hamburg, Frank Gutzeit is building a wooden village for three thousand people at the gates of the city. The purpose? Demonstrate that prefabricated houses do not bring architectural repetitiveness but savings: in construction and energy consumption.

Via Cenni in Milan

And what about Italy?

Italy was among the first countries to have its say in this new architectural development. As a matter of fact it was 2009 when Florentine architect Fabrizio Rossi Prodi won the competition for the construction of a fully wooden social housing in via Cenni in Milan. Four towers for 27 meters in height and four buildings of two floors, placed in a context of open common areas, with gardens and playgrounds. All in laminated larch and cross-laminated fir (XLam), 2.5 cm boards laid out in opposite directions, in layers, to form large panels. Which are then glued in the workshop with non-toxic substances, delivered to the construction site and then assembled.

An ecological, economic but also social choice

For Rossi Prodi, it was an ecological choice, economic but also and above all social. «It was the crisis years», he recalls. «It seemed like the perfect moment to propose an afterthought. Following the indications of the Social Housing Foundation we proposed a neighborhood to be built with a poor material, almost waste. But giving it a dignity that reflected on the lives of the inhabitants. The novelty of via Cenni is therefore material. Because wood has been used for everything: even for floors, walls, the elevator shaft. But it is above all typological. We have in fact designed the buildings, and the urban spaces that connect them, thinking about people and their social relationships».

A system designed on relationships

In Via Cenni there is not, for instance, the visual repetitiveness that is typical of new social areas. But, rather, a mix of large and small areas, places that act as an alcove, others that are not defined. «There are transparencies, occlusions and a variety that is perceived when crossing the court. And that changes during the hours of the day», continues Rossi Prodi. «The idea was to give the complex the richness of the typical places of the city, where the different is a value, architectural and social».

Via Cenni has brought Italy to the forefront of wood architecture

Realized in just 18 months, thanks to the dry assembly technique of the structures, Via Cenni was the project that led to the guidelines for the Italian National Housing Development Plan and for the National Investment Fund for Housing. Yet, since the inauguration year (2014) no other project of similar scope has been realized in Italy. Although wood is increasingly chosen for institutional structures (such as the Unicredit Pavilion by Michele de Lucchi and the headquarters of the Coima by Mario Cucinella in Milan), its use is scarce in the residential sector.

Why wood does not really take off in Italy

«Perhaps because we do not consider it really a part of our tradition», says Cino Zucchi, architect, curator of the Italian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2016. And author, among other things, of a large sculpture-fir shield near the gallery which connects the Vedeggio valley with that of the Cassarate in the Canton of Ticino. «In European cities, stone is considered much more authentic and I find it hard to imagine entire urban areas in solid wood in Italy. In spite of the excellent case of Via Cenni, that has shown how it is not only possible, but also avant-garde. The situation is different for countries like the United States, where wood has always been in the residential sector, now also for buildings with important heights».

Foresight is lacking

But according to Rossi Prodi it is not a matter of tradition. Instead, it is a lack of foresight. «Europe is covered with forests. And when trees age, they absorb less CO2. Cutting them and replacing them is a right choice, but we do not do it because we are tied to a post-war mentality, which privileges cement for a thousand reasons. The technology to create safe, beautiful and ecological wooden houses is there, and where there is an ecological will this material is in great use. As often happens, Italy gives the the but there are others to complete the businesses. It’s a shame».

Wooden architectures. Is it a race to the record?

It happens in Paris, where the mayor Anne Hidalgo is attentive to environmental issues: by 2020 there will be 24 buildings 100% wood. And in Helsinki, where the success of the National Library of ALA Architects (built with prefabricated wood elements) led to the creation of a degree course dedicated to Aalto University.

Good commissioners

It will not be the race to win a record – the tallest building, the most eco-friendly – to make the difference. «We need the political will to do things better and for everyone», concludes Rossi Prodi. «Because if it is true that wood improves the quality of living and work on building sites, the real difference is in design. Architecture can facilitate social relationships, promote diversity and foster a close-knit community. But nothing happens without an enlightened commission. And that, more than project ideas, is what Italy desperately needs».

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