Reaching for the sky
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Will Sampson is a lifelong woodworker and the Editorial Director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine.

What is it that makes us continually seek higher ground? Is it some primitive tactical response, needing to see farther or look down on an opponent or threat? Children play “king of the hill” or seek the highest point on the tallest piece of equipment on the playground. Maybe it’s something we have deep in our DNA from ancestors who lived in trees, seeking the heights to escape ground-based predators.

Whatever it is, this reaching for the sky is evident in our fascination with tall buildings. Ancient pyramids and towers touched the sky thousands of years ago with impressive stone and brick structures that remain marvels of construction. 

Construction techniques and materials have defined the limits of our building structures since the beginning of time. But we always stretch the limits of materials and invent new techniques to climb ever higher. For more than a century, steel and concrete have defined what could be called the age of the modern skyscraper, allowing structures to surpass 1,500 feet in height.

But there is a new player looking to touch the sky, and it’s actually one of the oldest building materials known to man: wood. While it’s a long way from competing with the tallest buildings in the world, new buildings built of wood are almost daily reaching new heights around the world. There are plans on the drawing boards for wood buildings as tall as 70 stories. These buildings are examples of what has been called mass timber construction. They make use of cross laminated timber and other technologies that extend the structural capabilities of wood to make constructions way taller than the trees the wood originally came from.

So, why revisit wood to build skyscrapers? The answer has to do with efficiency and concerns about the environment. Mass timber buildings are estimated to be just one-fourth of the weight of conventional steel and concrete structures. Plus, steel and concrete, especially concrete, are not exactly climate positive materials. Some estimates say mass timber building reduces a structure’s carbon footprint by as much as 75 percent. 

Construction with wood also has production efficiency advantages. It allows many parts of a structure to be fabricated in factories rather than on-site. And those lighter wood assemblies can be easily transported from the factory to the building site for installation in the building assembly, saving time and construction costs.

That makes mass timber construction attractive not just for tall buildings but also for low-rise multi-story constructions, competing with steel and concrete on the ground floor, so to speak. 

While most of our audience in the woodworking industry is focused on building the furnishings and cabinets that go inside buildings, there are new opportunities to build big buildings themselves. Maybe your next project could reach for the sky.


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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.