Skyscrapers Without Steel Could Slash Footprint By 75%

I live on a bluff just outside the official city limit of Denver, Colorado. I love getting to the top of the rise and seeing the cluster of skyscrapers sprouting out from the belly of the valley every time I go downtown. While the experience lets you know you’ve arrived in a big city, the reality of these tall towers is far less exhilarating.

According to the EPA buildings account for 65 percent of our electricity consumption and 30 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions here in the US. It might surprise you to learn that a lot of this can be explained by the materials used to construct big buildings: steel and concrete. A new report by the design firm Skidmore, Owings and Merril (SOM) found that by replacing this steel with timber, it could be possible to slash a skyscraper’s carbon footprint by up to 75 percent.

SOM timber tower

Images via SOM

The stated goal of SOM’s ‘Timber Tower Research Project‘ was to find a way to build structurally-sound, tall buildings using timber instead of steel. The solution revealed by the research is the ‘Concrete Jointed Timber Frame’, a system that “relies primarily on mass timber for the main structural elements, with supplementary reinforced concrete at the highly stressed locations of the structure: the connecting joints.”

According to the research team, the timber-based system is technically feasible from the standpoint of structural engineering, architecture, interior layouts, and building services. It would require zero steel and far less concrete than a normal skyscraper, thus drastically reducing its carbon footprint.

But we all that ideas that look good on paper aren’t always easy to implement in real life. And then there’s the question of whether or not it’s a good idea to harvest carbon-absorbing trees for the purpose of building apartments. For now, SOM admits that more research is necessary, and urges the design community to continue to work creatively with forward-thinking municipalities and code officials to make timber towers a reality.

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog

  • phor11

    If they didn’t factor in the removal of carbon scrubbing capacity (by cutting down trees) to their “carbon footprint” calculations, doesn’t that pretty much debunk their 75% number straightaway?

    • UnionLeague

      If you turn the Great Plains into giant tree farm and harvest the trees as needed you’ve solved the carbon problem. I know it sounds farfetched but before the arrival of European settlers in North America the area of what is now the United States was largely forested.

      • phor11

        If you turn the Great Plains into a giant tree farm, then you’ve solved the carbon problem, but created a food problem. : /

        • UnionLeague

          Good point, so maybe we use only the land that is unsuitable for agriculture and plant trees. Whether you use the trees for timber or not might not matter, might just be a good idea on it’s own.

  • ergodesk

    Beth, are you Joking?