A New Life for Wood

Architect Michael Green explains how wood can reshape urban construction while helping fight climate change.

Driving a nail into the wood of a deck
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This week some of the world's greatest visionaries assembled in Los Angeles for the annual TED conference, an intellect-enriching buffet serving everything from cutting-edge cancer detection technology to life lessons learned from a two-time world yo-yo champion. Vancouver-based architect Michael Green added his specialty to the line up, speaking about how one material—wood—has the potential to reshape urban construction while also meeting growing worldwide housing demand and meaningfully addressing climate change. Excerpts:

You've called wood the "most technologically advanced building material in the world." How is that?

Mother Nature holds the patent on the most sophisticated building materials. We have, as mankind, really ignored this material for a century because we've become, in a way, quite lazy in thinking that steel and concrete are the only way.

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We used to build big buildings with wood. Now we're taking ideas that were pre-Industrial Revolution, early 1900s and bringing them back. It's a dramatic change, and it's a new way to build a skyscraper.

How does using more wood in building help address greenhouse gas emissions and climate change?

Steel and concrete—[virtually] the only way to build in cities for the last 100 years—are high energy, high carbon footprint materials: Steel is over 3 percent of greenhouse gases, and concrete is 5 percent, so together those two materials alone are 8 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Wood on the other hand sequesters carbon, and that's the game changer. We're at the cusp of a revolution—that high carbon footprint, high energy buildings are completely unacceptable, just like we're starting to say that about cars and other transportation.

To address climate change we have to reduce our emissions and find ways to store carbon dioxide. To do that, we need new ways to build, and wood is [one of] the only building materials we use that does both those things. I don't dislike steel and concrete—they're good materials. I just want to use a lot less of those materials.

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How do you use more wood in building projects and not run into deforestation?

Deforestation is about 18 percent of man's contribution to climate change—it's a huge problem. But I think part of the solution to deforestation is actually creating an economic incentive to plant trees, basically making it more profitable to plant trees than to cut them down and plant crops.

Also, I've seen huge changes in just the past five years toward understanding that as long as the wood you source to build buildings is coming from sustainably harvested, well-managed forests, then to me it's not a dramatic difference from what we already expect from our farmers: Care for the land safely and grow crops every year.

How has the architectural community received your pitch to make wood a bigger part of urban construction?

I've met with one of the biggest engineering firms in the world, and the head of their wood engineering group said they've been asked to build with wood more this year than ever before in his career. I think this is the beginning of a significant change in the role of wood in our building. We've assumed that the solution to our building challenges is through technology, but sometimes the simplest things are the solution. We're starting to realize that there's some very commonsense things we can do to address some major issues—they're not glamorous, but they're really good.