Wood That Reaches New Heights
By HENRY FOUNTAIN
Published: June 4, 2012
LONDON — Among the many apartment buildings in the London borough of Hackney, the nine-story structure on the corner of Provost Street and Murray Grove stands out, its exterior a mix of white and gray tiles rather than the usual brick.
WITH THE GRAIN, AGAINST THE GRAIN At the nine-story Graphite Apartments in London, structural elements involve many layers of spruce fused together.
But it’s what’s underneath this cladding that makes the 29-unit building truly different. From the second floor up, it is constructed entirely of wood, making it one of the tallest wooden residential buildings in the world.
It was built three years ago using laminated spruce panels, up to half a foot thick and 30 feet long, that were fabricated to precise specifications in Austria, shipped across the English Channel and bolted together on site to form the exterior and interior walls, floors and roof. Even the stairwells and elevator shafts are made from these solid panels, called cross-laminated timber, which resemble supersize plywood.
Developed in Europe in the 1990s, cross-laminated timber, or CLT, is among the latest in a long line of “engineered” wood products that are strong and rigid enough to replace steel and concrete as structural elements in bigger buildings. Already popular in Europe, CLT is only beginning to catch on in North America, where proponents say buildings made with the panels could be a cheaper and environmentally friendly alternative to structures made with those other materials.
Codes in Britain allow more flexibility, said Anthony Thistleton, partner in the London architectural firm of Waugh Thistleton, which designed the Hackney building, formerly called Stadthaus and now known as the Graphite Apartments. “It’s perhaps the only place that we could have broken this ‘timber ceiling,’ ” he said.
Waugh Thistleton has designed a second CLT structure, a four-story commercial and residential building, now under construction nearby, and an eight-story apartment block is within walking distance, making Hackney a hotbed of cross-laminated timber design.
Last month, construction began on a 10-story CLT apartment tower in Melbourne, Australia. Some proponents think buildings made from the panels could be even taller. “In the U.K., I’m convinced that it will hit 12, 13, 14, maybe 15 within a couple of years,” said Craig Liddell, formerly commercial director with the British division of KLH, the Austrian company that made the panels for the Graphite Apartments. Others say that hybrid structures, perhaps with timber panels built around a concrete core, could reach 30 stories.