CHICAGO – Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP, a major architecture, interior design, engineering, and urban-planning firms, is proposing a new structural model for tall buildings: wood.

The goal of the Timber Tower Research Project was to develop a structural system for tall buildings that uses mass timber as the main structural material and minimizes the embodied carbon footprint of the building. The structural system research was applied to a prototypical building based on an existing concrete benchmark for comparison. The concrete benchmark building is the Dewitt-Chestnut Apartments; a 395-foot tall, 42 story building in Chicago designed by SOM and built in 1965.

SOM’s solution to the tall wooden building problem is the “Concrete Jointed Timber Frame.” This system relies primarily on mass timber for the main structural elements, with supplementary reinforced concrete at the highly stressed locations of the structure: the connecting joints. This system plays to the strengths of both materials and allows the engineer to apply sound tall building engineering fundamentals. The result is believed to be an efficient structure that could compete with reinforced concrete and steel while reducing the carbon footprint by 60 to 75 percent.

SOM believes that the proposed system is technically feasible from the standpoint of structural engineering, architecture, interior layouts, and building services. Additional research and physical testing is necessary to verify the performance of the structural system. SOM has also developed the system with consideration to constructability, cost, and fire protection. Reviews from experts in these fields and physical testing related to fire is also required before this system can be fully implemented in the market. Lastly, the design community must continue to work creatively with forward thinking municipalities and code officials using the latest in fire engineering and performance based design to make timber buildings a viable alternative for more sustainable tall buildings.

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