Using wood to reach new heights
von Sandra Hofmeister | Dec 1, 2011

It is not without justification that architects roll their eyes when asked to sweepingly state their position on the buzzword "sustainability". Over the past years this term has been strewn around in an excessively arbitrary and inflammatory fashion, its use as a marketing mantra much too indiscriminate. Now even properties are being labeled with the term "sustainable" for marketing purposes as the real-estate sector professes it as a new standard of quality, one that is often only partially satisfied and sometimes not at all. "Greenwashing" is the term used to describe this phenomenon in expert circles.

But the word "sustainability" originally comes from the forestry industry and it is precisely this connection that "Building with timber – paths into the future", an exhibition currently being held in Munich, seeks to re-establish. However, curators Winfried Nerdinger and Hermann Kaufmann have consciously refrained from presenting their highly impressive exhibition under the heading of "sustainability". Instead they have chosen to showcase the whole range of aspects and interdependencies that accompany this renewable resource throughout its entire life cycle: from forestry to processing into sawn timber, to recycling options, to the world of European forest plantation as a place of work, an economic factor and an ecosystem in itself. And so, much more comes up for discussion than the advantages of wood as a local and renewable resource in terms of climate change or its benefits for buildings and their ecological assessments. The technical and constructive possibilities that this building material affords are also documented here in the form of models, photos and texts, based on a total of 52 examples. A more diverse, surprising or impressive presentation of these architectural references, citing wood constructions in the Japanese city of Ōdate or Windsor in the UK, in Berlin or Bad Aibling, is barely conceivable.

Forests full of energy

As soon as you walk through the doors of the exhibition, the facts speak for themselves: An enormous spruce complete with roots intersects the first exhibition hall in Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne like an art installation by nature. Throughout its lifetime, this 84-year-old tree has absorbed 4.6 tons of carbon dioxide and produced 3.4 tons of oxygen. Processed to make sawn timber and engineered wood, this material serves as a raw material in chemistry as well as being used for paper and fuel such as pellets, and this along with all its by-products and residues – a universal, renewable construction material, whose value chain boasts overwhelming results under ecological assessment. Today European forest plantations, consisting mainly of spruce, pines, beech and oak, are continuously expanded in their surface area. In Germany alone, these wooded areas are growing at a rate of approximately 80 million cubic meters a year, of which around 70 million are harvested. Around a third of that would be sufficient to erect all of the new builds completed in Germany each year entirely out of wood.

Forests supply us with materials and are a huge source of energy; they absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, protect against avalanches and erosion and create natural biotopes. In contrast to glass or steel, the processes used to prepare wood for use as a construction material consume very little energy. High levels of pre-fabrication and short assembly times mean that the costs of building with wood can be kept low. An ecological assessment of the material and its use demonstrates that it places around 70 percent less burden on the environment than other construction methods. Furthermore, new fire-proof options and improvements in fire and noise protection make wood a construction material that has progressed a great deal since the days when its use was exclusive to private family homes, now offering a plethora of advantages for major international projects, too.

Systems and supporting structures

Wood is not only used to build freight depots and churches, tax offices and exhibition centers, it is also employed in large-scale spatial experiments such as the roof of the multi-functional venue building for the Expo 2000 in Hannover. The space is sheltered by a roof, or, more accurately described, a double-curved supporting structure with a total surface area of 16,000 square meters that is divided into ten individual screens. Another example would be Toyo Ito's Odate Jukai Dome Park, a multi-purpose hall predominantly used as a baseball stadium, which is crowned by a large dome, whose truss arches and laminated timber chords made of wood from the Akita Cedar seem to burst all limits of construction with wood. The Pérez Cruz vineyard estate near Santiago de Chile has installed a floating roof made of wooden casing, thus providing natural ventilation for its halls. And the Esmarchstrasse residential building in Berlin – a modular building with a white rendered façade – is proof that seven-story wooden constructions are most definitely an architectural possibility within the urban context, too. However, when it comes to timber buildings, many countries have legal restrictions on the height of the eaves. Yet research studies such as the Life Cycle Tower show that it is indeed possible to build high-rise edifices using this combustible material. An excellent example of wood's implementation in public residential architecture is an office and apartment building by Schankula Architects in Bad Aibling. This building, whose eight stories were erected in just 16 working days, even boasts a heating requirement of just 18 kilowatt hours per square meter per year.

The future for wood as a construction material looks bright – the advantages afforded by this ancient material can now be specifically translated into architectural and aesthetic qualities. It is also safe to say that wood's place within interior design is now well established, decorating our homes with naturally rough surfaces, items of furniture and in the form of wood-based panels. The final hall of the exhibition provides a perspective on sensory experiences and spatial qualities provided by the material: a wooden cabinet, the entire room is lined with beech wood. The floor, the walls and the lamella ceiling smell like a real piece of nature captured during a relaxing stroll in the woods.

Bauen mit Holz – Wege in die Zukunft
(Building with timber – paths into the future)
From November 10, 2011 to February 5, 2012
Architektur Museum der Technischen Universität München, Pinakothek der Moderne

Catalog accompanying the exhibition:
Bauen mit Holz – Wege in die Zukunft
Edited by Hermann Kaufmann and Winfried Nerdinger
Hardback, 224 pages, in German
Prestel, Munich, 2011
39.95 Euros

Find a comprehensive overview of wood-products here:
Wood-products at Stylepark

Cukrowicz Nachbaur Architects: Community Center St. Gerold, Austria, 2008, photo © Hanspeter Schiess
Kengo Kuma & Associates: Yusuhara Town Hall, Yusuhara, Japan, 2006, photo © Mitsumasa Fujitsuka
Kaden Klingbeil: Apartment House Esmarchstraße, Berlin, 2008, photo © Bernd Borchardt
Oskar Leo Kaufmann, Albert Rüf: Alp Hotel Ammerwald, Reutte, Austria, 2008, photo © Adolf Bereuter
ETH-Studio Monte Rosa with Bearth & Deplazes Architects: New Monte Rosa Hut, Wallis, Schwitzerland, 2009, photo © Tonatiuh Ambrosetti
ETH-Studio Monte Rosa with Bearth & Deplazes Architects: New Monte Rosa Hut, Wallis, Schwitzerland, 2009, photo © Tonatiuh Ambrosetti
Deppisch Architects: Biohotel with Appletree Garden, Hohenbercha, Germany, 2006, photo © Sebastian Schels
JKMM Architects: Church of Viikki, Helsinki, Finnland, 2005, photo © Kimmo Räisänen
Miller & Maranta: Rebuilding Hospice St. Gotthard, Schwitzerland, 2009, photo © Ruedi Walti
José Cruz Ovalle: Winery Pérez Cruz, Paine, Chile, 2002, photo © Juan Purcell
Graeme Mann & Patricia Capua Mann Architectes: Gymnasium, Borex-Crassier, Schwitzerland, 2007, photo © Thomas Jantscher