A young French pioneer named Timothée Boitouzet may well be remembered in years to come as the person who made it possible to build ‘smart’ cities out of wood. The founder of the Paris-based startup Woodoo, who is barely 30 years old, has succeeded in re-engineering natural wood to make it as solid as concrete as well as fire-resistant, weatherproof and translucent! Developed at the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard University, this ‘next generation’ wood is opening up entirely new prospects for architecture. Strengthened at nanometric scale, with its lignin removed and an extra dose of cellulose added, this material looks set to provide the ‘green bricks’ for 21st century construction.
Augmented wood could revolutionise the building industry
Today reinforced wood can be used to build towers and even skyscrapers, though to date the structural loads and other properties of the woods used have meant that buildings higher than twelve floors were not allowed. During the 20th century, wood was already regarded as an old-fashioned material, but now a real revolution is taking place, promising huge potential for building low-carbon cities. Woodoo has achieved its impressive results by developing a complex process to transform the properties of the wood. First the lignin is extracted – and then recycled on the renewable chemicals market to avoid any pollution – so that the wood only retains its cellular skeleton, into which a bio-sourced substance is injected so as to strengthen it. The procedure, which also makes the wood translucent, is infinitely more environmentally-friendly than the currently used materials in the construction sector allow. Woodoo boasts a carbon footprint just half that of concrete and 130 times lower than steel. Moreover, the company’s technology not only produces wood that is far stronger than the natural substance but also makes use of types of timber – such as low-grade wood and wood from frail trees, low-grade wood – that has up to now not been much used in the building industry in France but is nevertheless widely available.
ISN’T IT GOOD - TRANSLUCENT WOOD!
Woodoo’s augmented wood is both very economical and environmentally-friendly, with a wide range of benefits for ‘smart’ cities. Not least, it is likely to revolutionise construction schedules as it takes just two minutes to assemble a 200-kilo beam, compared with the 24 hours required to cast a cement girder. A building made of wood could be delivered in twelve months whereas construction firms plan on over eighteen months on average to complete a building using traditional materials. Wood is also lighter than concrete and metal, though equally durable, and requires less truck capacity – and therefore less emitted CO2 – to transport it to the building site. In fact, a building made of wood will have a carbon footprint close to zero, leaving concrete structures way behind in terms of pollution containment and environmentally responsible procedures. Nor should we forget that wood is a perfect insulator, which also means less wasted heat and (once again) lower CO2 emissions.
When we build tomorrow’s cities we’ll need to build them faster, denser, and in a more environmentally-friendly manner.
But wood has even more advantages over other common construction materials. It is relaxing and warm, and can help to reduce the stress levels of a building’s occupants by providing them with a more natural urban environment that is more conducive to well-being and happiness. Moreover, the fact that the re-engineered wood is translucent means that it admits more sunlight into apartments and offices, thus having a doubly positive impact: on people’s health and on their energy bills.
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Meanwhile the architects at French startup Woodeum have taken all these advantages on board to develop the Arboretum venture in conjunction with BNP Paribas Real Estate. This impressive 126,000m2 office complex, which is scheduled to be built by 2020 on a site close to Nanterre, west of Paris, will be constructed entirely of wood. It is intended to be a really liveable space, surrounded by nature. Those who go to work there every day will be able to enjoy a varied range of nature-related benefits including a communal market garden and courses in bio cooking. Arboretum is designed to be a forerunner of the buildings of the future, with prime emphasis on nature. It may offer a glimpse of what low-carbon cities will look like, including the major role that wood will play in these ‘green’ structures, where the dividing line between city and nature is blurred, fostering a new relationship with work and a healthier lifestyle.
The wood-built Smart City won’t shy away from modern technology
A building will no longer be an inert mass but an organism able to adapt to the climate through connectivity
Using wood as a main construction material will also encourage us to totally rethink our relationship with buildings. This is a key ingredient in a movement we are currently seeing, which draws on a combination of bio-technologies, digital tools and modern manufacturing in order to create the city of the future. Because wood is inherently more flexible in terms of its properties than cement, it has wider potential in the search for new bionic materials capable of adapting to their environment, communicating with the outside world and undergoing further improvements using artificial intelligence. It is likely that tomorrow’s buildings will in a sense be living structures, based on a combination of natural construction materials and highly advanced technology.
Wood-built Smart City not so far off?
In fact wood is already being used in the new urban configurations that are now appearing pretty much all over the world. In Shanghai, Paris, New York and in the majority of other mega-cities, eco-districts, ‘vertical farms’ and urban forests are sprouting everywhere. The current vogue for bionic architecture – whose thinking is based on engineering inspired by nature – is moving the world in this direction. Architects such as Belgian-born, Paris-based Vincent Caillebaut are now laying the foundations of tomorrow’s green architecture with their ‘agritectural’ structures, whose threefold principle is to have buildings with built-in agriculture, covered with vegetation and with energy autonomy. One such example is the plan for Hyperion towers, a group of wooden tower blocks which will produce their own energy, to be built in India’s capital New Delhi by Vincent Caillebaut. The pioneers of this futuristic architecture, which may represent the first beginnings of truly low-carbon cities in the modern era, see wood as the ideal construction material to help attain ‘green’ objectives.
There are nevertheless still a number of obstacles to be overcome before tomorrow’s Smart Cities can be built of wood. The timber industry will need to be reorganised so as to be able to meet the surging demand from architects and real estate developers once they are in a position to build in wood on a large scale. Woods currently rejected by industry will not suffice. Moreover, when building large wooden structures today, companies still follow glued laminated timber techniques that use pollutant chemical glues. However, we can feel confident that progress currently being made is only a taste of a vast series of innovations to come that will completely transform our cities into much greener, more technologically-oriented living spaces.