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July 18, 2018

Can we solve the world’s energy crisis with wooden buildings?


Urbanization and the rapid growth in population are driving the global energy demand higher. Keeping up with the demand for energy remains as one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century.

Buildings are constantly being erected to maintain enough space for population growth, but the life cycle of a building is one of the most energy-intensive processes in the world. Buildings, building materials, and subsequent construction components consume nearly 40 percent of the global energy demand.

While there are many reasons for the substantial amount of energy used to build and maintain buildings, one of the major environmental concerns arises from the fabrication of cement, one of the basic ingredients in concrete.

It is a utilitarian material used in the fabrication of bridges, skyscrapers, and residential foundation, among many other uses. But the cement industry is one of the worst contributors of pollution. Its production accounts for about 5 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions alone.

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Lifestyle changes and with a society bent around space, the demand for newer and bigger buildings is ever increasing. Old buildings are torn down to make way for the new, and the lifespan of the average building is decreasing. But the many of the buildings which are cleared away are destroyed long before their useful life expires. Demolishing concrete structures comes with complications of its own, such as its tendency to leach into and poison topsoil and water bodies.

“Buildings are one of the largest consumers of global resources and all energy produced, and are primary contributors to greenhouse gases and solid wastes,” tells the MIT Mass Timber Design team, a small group of MIT researchers leading a new initiative to change the way buildings are made. “[So] the need for energy-intelligent building prototypes is more significant than ever.”

New building materials are constantly being developed and new techniques employed, but many institutions, including MIT, are investigating using ancient alternative technologies which are cheaper, and perhaps more durable than concrete and steel buildings.

It was the Romans who arguably perfected concrete, and many of their structures still stand today. While their structures stood the test of time, the recipe for Roman concrete, which still remains as one of the strongest materials created by man, was ultimately lost when the Roman Empire fell. Following its collapse, concrete became scarce and was largely abandoned. It would not be until the mid-18th century before steel and concrete would regain popularity.

However, civil engineers and architects of today are reverting modern building practices to re-incorporate timber as a primary structure and construction material. New technologies are being investigated to replace steel reinforced concrete structures with mass timber housing. Universities such as the University of Maryland and MIT among others are pioneering new techniques to readapt wood to the modern world.

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