Cross Laminated Timber and ‘the Timber Age’

Cross laminated timber, for some reason, has always been the most popular topic on this blog. The most read article on the blog in 2016 (and ditto for every other year I’ve been writing) was about this unique building material that seems to be challenging pre-existing notions about what can be built with wood. 

Some readers are apparently well versed and seem to be seeking out information about this product, but for those who aren’t as familiar, cross laminated timber is a wood product that is engineered to create panels that are much thicker and stronger than typical ply wood. These panels can be insulated and use to build walls and even structural elements in buildings. Wood in general is considered an excellent building material from a sustainability point of view because of its low embodied energy, renewability, and the fact that forests absorb carbon. 

So what’s being built these days, using cross laminated timber? The answer is all kinds of buildings including some of the greenest buildings being built today. Some examples can be found here, in this Dezeen article about the ‘age of timber’.

Grand Designs: Hiding in Plain Sight

Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re introduced to something that seems like it was hiding in plain sight? A friend recently introduced me to the British tv series Grand Designs and I can’t believe I didn’t know about it until now. It’s been around since 1999, and for an architect and design junkie like me this is amazing stuff. 

    We watched host Kevin McCloud chronicle the efforts of a young couple as they buy a property in Northern Ireland on a stunning sight overlooking the sea. With astonishing  hard work, architect Michael Howe and his wife Michelle Long create an addition and transform the 100 year old black smith shop into a stunning home for themselves and their two children.

    This home makes the most of its north coast Ireland setting. Image from Belfast Telegraph.

    For me the best part of the way the show is made is that they follow the couple as they plan and build the project. The show details the myriad challenges of the project and the setbacks, with what seems to be a sympathetic but realistic eye. The project comes alive before your eyes, and unique and innovative ideas are explained in a way that both professionals and everyone else can understand. As the project develops difficulties are encountered that seen insurmountable, but the couple finds a way through. All in all it makes for a great show.

    While they’ve made something like 160 episodes, the one I really want to see next is about the creation of this improbable and unique house by Patrick Bradley Architects made of shipping containers.

    The Grillagh Water house is made of stacked shipping containers. Image from Dezeen 

    Jeanne Gang’s Work: Truly Innovative Architecture

    Innovation comes from research and openness to both new and old ways of doing things. For me that was an important take away from Jeanne Gang’s talk at the National Gallery of Canada this week. Gang is a Chicago architect who was recently named Architect of the Year by the UK’s Architectural Review for her work on a modest university building in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

    The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, located on the quaint campus of Kalamazoo College, is an architectural achievement that comes from Gang’s tireless research and willingness to look at problems in unique ways. The building provides an elegant contemporary space for a campus mostly characterized by colonial style buildings, but one of the true innovations here is the use of a local building method Gang rediscovered and calls calls ‘cord wood masonry’. More on that construction method here.

    The Arcus Center in Kalamazoo, MI. Image from Studio Gang.  
    During the course of her talk, Gang showed many examples of her research method and how it uncovers unique solutions. Two of my favorites include an unbuilt project called Polis Station and a theatre building in Glencoe, Illinois. Polis Station showed her taking on the social issue of better policing that the Obama administration has studied this year. As we all know, Chicago has had some very real policing problems recently. Gang used community consultation in an effort to improve a Chicago police station and propose some new community spaces that are intended to bring the neighbourhood on to the site on a daily basis to interact with officers in a social setting. More on that project here.

     Polis Station. Image from Studio Gang. 
    In Glencoe, Studio Gang’s research has uncovered another unique mid-west wood construction technique and deployed it to great effect. The Writer’s Theatre employs a unique way of joining thin wood elements to wood beams to create a beautiful ‘lattice’ structure on the outside of the building. 

    Exterior wood lattice at The Witer’s Theatre, Glencoe, IL. Image from Studio Gang. 

    Bad Guys Need Good Architecture

    I caught Ex Machina on Netflix last night. I’d wanted to watch it for a while because ever since reading Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep as a teenager I’ve been fascinated by artificial intelligence and the idea of a future where droids are almost indifferentiable from humans. The movie version of that book, Bladerunner, is my favourite among a few movies that feature very interesting buildings.

    Ex Machina is a decent movie and the acting is quite good, but one component that especially grabbed my attention as someone that loves a good movie set is the Juvet Landscape Hotel in north west Norway which serves as the bad guy’s lair in the movie. 

    Designed by Jensen & Skodvin Architects the hotel is wood clad and spectacularly nestled among trees overlooking a river. 

    In an article in Dezeen, the production designer for the movie, Mark Digby, says some interesting things about his choice of locations and how hard edged, shiny buildings are typically “for the bad guys.” He wanted to address that but says the choice of set was about being more interesting than that too. He stresses the importance of the choice of set given that the whole of the movie occurs in one house.

    Personally I find the set and especially the architecture of the hotel they used stunning and I’m amused that they chose to represent the badness of the villain in ths way. The combination of wood cladding and very crisp glazed walls achieves a really elegant effect, and is definitely not the typical Dr. Evil lair. 

    Have you seen the movie? Would love to hear readers’ thoughts.

    Images from Dezeen and Juvet.


    Cross- Laminated Timber Gets Full Marks

    In recognition of the enduring interest that cross-laminated timber has generated on this blog, here’s a really top notch project by the Netherland’s Drost + van Veen that pays high homage to that building material. This interpretive centre is beautifully sited and the details and massing are deftly handled. 

    Wood construction has the potential to improve the the building industry’s environmental footprint  significantly as it is renewable, can be regrown relatively quickly, and trees consume carbon dioxide as they grow. Interesting, too, that the wood construction industry in North America is feeling new life because of this sustainable building trend.

       Images from Arch Daily.

    More information here. And here.

    RAIC Recognizes Innovative Green Buildings

    Two buildings that raise the bar from a sustainability and design excellence point of view have been recognized by Canada’s national architecture organization, the RAIC, this year. has been following each of them for different reasons. One is the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) at University of British Columbia, possibly North America’s greenest building. CIRS is an internationally recognized research institution dedicated to advancing green building. The other is the Wood Innovation Design Centre (WIDC) which is advancing wood construction to new heights. This building is the champion for wood as a highly sustainable building system. More information about these buildings and others who received innovation awards this year here.

    Images from RAIC and Archdaily.


    Fieldstone House Combines High Design With Sustainability Features

    Thanks to Janet of Toronto’s Steelcut Coffee for sharing this elegant house design. It meets’s criteria for sustainable buildings by setting the bar high for aesthetics while impressive measures have been put in place to ensure sustainability goals are achieved.

    Milwaukee based Bruns Architecture has specified triple glazing, impressive insulation levels, and efficient radiant heated floors for this project. The houses eaves have been carefully designed to shade in summer and maximize solar penetration in winter.

    Read more here.




    Van Dusen Botanic Gardens is Sustainable Building of the Year

    World Architecture News (WAN) has recognized this Vancouver building as the most sustainable of the year. Designed by Perkins and Will the building has achieved LEED Platinum and is Canada’s first building to apply for The Living Building Challenge.

    VanDusen Botanical Gardens is Sustainable Building of The Year

    World Architecture News (WAN) has recognized this Vancouver building as the most sustainable of the year. Designed by Perkins and Will the building has achieved LEED Platinum and is Canada’s first building to apply for The Living Building Challenge.

    Image from Perkins and Will.


    Zita Cobb Talks About Fogo Island At C2MTL

    Zita Cobb, a former JDS Uniphase exec was at Montreal’s C2MTL conference last week and presented her work and that of the Shorefast Foundation on Fogo Island.

    This unique and isolated place off Newfoundland’s rugged coast where Zita grew up has, thanks partly to her organizational skills, and the architecture of Todd Saunders become a unique and high quality destination for artists and the tourists in the know that find their way there.

    At the conference Zita talked about the power of design intimating that people didn’t really notice the island, until they got professional design excellence in the form of Mr. Saunder’s work designing artist’s residences and a hotel on the island.

    Zita challenged the audience to take ongoing responsibility for creation of their own communities. Throughout the talk she wove in the themes of sustainability and high design that permeate the place and left us with this environmentalist message; “On Fogo Island, we know the rocks watched us when we arrived and we don’t forget they will watch us leave.”