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Timber skyscrapers edge closer to reality

The era of sky-high timber buildings is approaching, with researchers from the UK’s Cambridge University delivering a concept plan for an 80-storey, 300-metre-tall timber skyscraper to London mayor Boris Johnson.

The university is working with PLP Architecture and engineers Smith and Wallwork to progress plans for tall timber buildings in London’s CBD. The proposal put forward would see 1000 new residential dwellings in a one million square foot (92,903 sq m) mixed-use tower and mid-rise terraces integrated with the Barbican Estate in central London.

“The Barbican was designed in the middle of the last century to bring residential living into the city of London – and it was successful,” director of Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation

Dr Michael Ramage said. “We’ve put our proposals on the Barbican as a way to imagine what the future of construction could look like in the 21st century.”

Timber is gaining momentum around the world as a construction material, due to its carbon abatement potential, and the possibility for cheaper construction times and costs, and fire resistance properties.

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Dr Ramage said London needed to densify to survive, and one way to do so was to create more tall buildings.

“We believe people have a greater affinity for taller buildings in natural materials rather than steel and concrete towers,” he said. “The fundamental premise is that timber and other natural materials are vastly underused and we don’t give them nearly enough credit. Nearly every historic building, from King’s College Chapel to Westminster Hall, has made extensive use of timber.”

PLP Architecture partner Keving Flanagan said timber buildings could improve amenity and wellbeing in the city.

“We now live predominantly in cities and so the proposals have been designed to improve our wellbeing in an urban context,” he said. “Timber buildings have the potential architecturally to create a more pleasing, relaxed, sociable and creative urban experience.”

Currently the world’s tallest timber building is just 14 storeys high, which would make the 300 metres proposed a huge leap. Indeed, it would become the second-tallest building in the city, after The Shard.

“We’ve designed the architecture and engineering and demonstrated it will stand, but this is at a scale no one has attempted to build before,” Dr Ramage said. “We are developing a new understanding of primary challenges in structure and construction. There is a lot of work ahead, but we are confident of meeting all the challenges before us.”

The Barbican design is the first in a series of timber skyscrapers being developed by Cambridge University with funding from the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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