Can climate change and housing issues be tackled together?

I love the idea of multitasking.  

Although the concept has a bad reputation in our productivity-obsessed culture, I try to implement the idea whenever my brain allows; responding to text messages during meetings, paying bills while watching shows, listening to podcasts while running errands, etc. 

Climate Change AND Housing Crisis

Some are easy and enjoyable (podcast listening with errands), and some are challenging and not advisable (text messaging during meetings).

Even with the bad reputation of multitasking, I am definitely a proponent of the practice, especially when the tasks involved are similar or have positive/ reciprocal relationships between the functions.

I recently read the article on using wood for mid/high-rise buildings. I thought of the “multitasking” quality of the material wood brings to the construction industry. 

As we get more educated about the two huge issues we face, Climate Change and Housing Crisis( especially in big urban cities like Toronto), wooden construction for mid/high-rise buildings could be the ONE solution that can tackle both issues simultaneously.  

However, one obstacle is in the way of accomplishing these monumental challenges; our perception of wood in building construction.

Perception 1: Wood is a weak material

Our perception of wood has been ingrained firmly.  

We associate many positive perceptions with one of the most natural materials we know. 

Remembering our childhood, climbing up the neighbourhood trees with friends, lying on the grass underneath a tree on hot summer days, or recognizing the new seasons by noticing the green leaves turning into beautiful reddish brown colours are such examples of our wood stories.  

Photo by Pixabay on

However, even with these many positive aspects associated with wood, there is one substantial negative association; its strength. (or, more correctly, its weakness)

Wood is considered to be a soft material, especially in the face of fire. 

Many of us read (or heard) about the infamous historical fires: The Great Chicago Fire in 1871, NYC Tenement building Fire in 1860 and the more recent London Grenfell Building Fire in 2017.  

These are potent imageries that are deeply ingrained in our psyche.  

Even though the actual stories about these fires had more to do with the lack of clear building code or zoning issues at that time, we remember these events with ONE strong image: fire burning through the wooden structures. 

It creates a false narrative that somehow the culprit(or even cause) of these events has to do with wood and its fire weakness.

On the other hand, we assume steel/concrete to be strong construction materials that can “withstand” many disasters, including fire.  

However, that assumption was shattered when we saw the image of the World Trade Center tower collapsing during the catastrophic 9/11 attack. We were horrified to catch a plane going through one of the towers and realize the many lives lost on those floors. 

However, I don’t think any of us thought of the possibility of the enormous tower collapsing after hours of a fire burning and many more lives lost from the destruction. 

One of the particular qualities of steel is its unpredictability in the fire.  

Without warning, steel could buckle(collapse) suddenly when it is exposed to fire for a specific duration.  

On the other hand, wood burns more “predictable” manner. Therefore giving more time for people to evacuate in the case of fire.

Looking at the past examples of wooden buildings in fire, they were rarely the structure that started the fire; instead, the fire started in one corner of a building (due to some inflammable elements, furnishings, equipment etc.). It began to spread into different parts of the building. (ex. London Grenfell Tower building).

Even with many examples and various causes of the fire, we learned about in the past, we somehow go back to the most effortless perception when it comes to wooden construction: fire caused by wood.

Perception 2: Wood costs more to build

Even with many benefits of building with wood – faster construction, design flexibility, climate-friendly material – clients are wary of using wood due to “perceived” additional cost implications.  

CLT (Cross Laminated Timber) and Mass Timber are the types of high-strength wood construction materials that can be used to build mid/high-rise buildings. They are engineered into solid structural elements – beams and columns, structural panels – glued under pressure and nailed together perpendicularly to increase their strength.

Although CLT has been around since the 1990s, its use is relatively new, especially for high-rise buildings.

Photo by Adrian Cuj on

One of the more recent (and the tallest) buildings planned in Toronto has 31 stories, and the entire project will be built with CLT.

In addition to being wary of using new building materials, there is another obstacle: cost, more accurately, higher cost.

The added cost of fireproofing these wooden structural elements is another reason clients hesitate about wood construction.

However, fireproofing the structural elements in the building is required in ALL constructions, not just wood: steel, and concrete.

The perception of “costly” wood high-rise buildings started from the wrong source, especially in North America. Due to North America’s prevalent wooden stick-frame houses, we associate wooden structures with only single-family homes (small, short buildings).  

From this limited knowledge and also experience, imagining the possibility of high-rise housing buildings built entirely out of wood seems not an efficient (aka expensive and uncomfortable) way to build for many clients.

Perception 3: availability of wood in the future?

This is definitely a valid question.  

If we start building every mid/high-rise building with wood, will we have trees left for future generations?

To combat the greenhouse gas emissions caused by concrete and steel buildings, aren’t we creating another set of crises for our future generations? 

Photo by Pixabay on

The architect Michael Green who had built several high-rise wood buildings in both US/Canada gave a TED talk about this particular issue.  

According to the information from the talk, with a responsible approach to building with wood and a transparent incentive system for landowners to grow trees, we would continue to have enough to plan and build with wood in the future.  

He estimates it takes 13 minutes for 20 North American forests to grow enough wood for 20 story building!

Final Thought

Climate Change and Housing Crisis are the two most significant challenges we face today. Thinking about them together and coming up with solutions for both issues would be the perfect multitasking we should consider.

However, these challenging goals require simple (but difficult) adjustments from ALL of us: changing our perceptions.

Many of us resist changes (including yours truly), especially in our deep-rooted beliefs about our understanding of the world.  

Not only do we associate changes with difficulties, we even convince ourselves that those changes are wrong or even unnecessary. (so we don’t have to make those painful changes).

However, even the die-hard climate change naysayers, I suspect, also recognize the urgency of climate change. Added to another urgent issue, Housing Crisis, we must tackle two challenges.

ONE solution to eliminate (or minimize ) BOTH issues could start with a shift in questioning our perception: wood high-rise buildings.  

Although many construction professionals are pushing for building with wood, the general public must also believe in and push for such constructions.

Such efforts can only happen by starting with questioning our deep-seated perceptions about wood.

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