After 19th-century construction codes limited wood’s structural use—a response to devastating fires in Boston and Chicago—it seemed the future of cities’ skylines would belong to concrete and steel. But as a new exhibition at Washington, D.C.’s National Building Museum (NBM) demonstrates, wood deserves renewed consideration in the design and construction of large edifices, and engineers and architects are starting to explore the possibilities.
Modest in size yet chock-full of interesting information, Timber City is equal parts science lesson and architectural display. Designed and curated by Yugon Kim and Tomomi Itakura, founding partners of Boston-based architecture firm IKD, the exhibition tells the story of timber construction—and the business, engineering, and environmental benefits it conveys—through the lifecycle of wood. The focus here is on mass timber: engineered products that combine multiple pieces of wood to increase structural strength, such as laminated veneer lumber, glulam, and cross-laminated timber (CLT).
More than a dozen recent buildings are presented throughout the exhibition as examples of how engineers and architects are using mass timber to go bigger and higher, including Waugh Thistleton Architect's Murray Grove residential building (London, 2009); a theoretical 42-story tower by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (2013); and Michael Green Architecture’s Wood Innovation and Design Centre (Prince George, British Columbia, 2014), currently the world’s tallest contemporary wood building at nearly 100 feet.
Looking to dispel myths of wood’s robustness when compared with concrete and steel, Timber City shows that wood not only holds its own, it frequently bests those material juggernauts in both performance and environmental benefits, from better strength-to-weight ratio, to greater thermal efficiency, to less manufacturing waste and energy use. And, of course, it’s a carbon-sequestering, single-source material that grows itself.
Everything in this exhibition is presented in an approachable manner: simple color palette, clear infographics and illustrations, touchable engineered wood samples, large building and section models. And Timber City benefits tremendously from its second-floor NBM gallery home, where it receives copious natural light. Occasionally, however, the design moves get in the way: a few graphic treatments of text require extensive neck-craning, and the fine sans-serif font used on the CLT presentation boards can sometimes be tough to read against the wood grain.
But these are minor quibbles. With its light touch, compelling story, and comprehensive-yet-easily-digestible content, Timber City, which is at the NBM through May 21, 2017, hits the sweet spot of the museum's mission: “to advance the quality of the built environment by educating people about its impact on their lives.” This visitor came away wondering why there aren’t more wood buildings out there. It’s likely you will, too.