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Industry & Trends

Living Timber Is the Latest Building Material

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February 28, 2024 | Warren Shoulberg

The building materials business has moved to its latest iteration: using live trees in new building construction.

Using wood in building new structures may be far more sustainable than other materials but there’s no getting around the fact that the trees that supply the wood still have to be harvested… until now.

Terreform One, a nonprofit art, architecture and urban design research group is creating a new building north of New York City in a forest along the Hudson River that uses live trees that have been grown specifically for the purpose of forming a building structure. According to a report in Fast Company, it’s a technique that was once used thousands of years ago but had largely fallen out of favor due to the time it took to grow the trees for this specific use.

Terreform worked with local growers from the seed stage to grow trees that would fit their construction needs. “We wanted to use the powers of computing and fabrication systems and other ideas about how we could prototype this to nudge nature or help train nature to do the things it does naturally, but shape it into usable structures and eventually homes,” Mitchell Joachim of Terreform said.

“In looking at other methods for growing trees quickly,” Fast Company reported, “the team learned about biomass farms, which grow trees that are harvested and burned to create electricity. These farms grow tightly packed rows of trees that rise dozens of feet in height within just a few years. The tall, slender trees seemed perfect for use in the scaffold Joachim and his team envisioned. The design shifted and the project was reoriented around replanting white willows harvested from a commercial biomass farm.”

The new structure, the Fab Tree Hab pavilion, is made up of these replanted trees. Planted together in clusters, the trees make up a few dozen vertical ribs of the pavilion. Designed to graft together over time into a thicker tree, each cluster forms what will be a pillar of the building, Fast Company wrote.

“While they’re still young and pliable, the clusters have been bent into the mass timber scaffold. The ribs of the scaffold guide the trees upwards and along the path of what will eventually be a sloping pitched roof. After a year’s growth, it’s estimated that the tree elements will be able to physically support the weight of these planters and habitat structures.”

“The point of the entire structure is a prototype to really get this right so that this could be replicated anywhere,” Joachim says. He envisions the system being scaled up, and made into a kit of parts. “The main goal is to have an engineered living material and get it to work precisely right and know the rules so they can be repeated elsewhere, and wean us off of concrete and steel,” Joachim says.

Sustainability is a hot topic, and you can learn more about it during the “Building the Future: The Rise of Mass Timber Manufacturing & Construction” session at IWF 2024.

Image: Terreform One Fab Tree Hab

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