Must-haves for Sir Bob Jones' world-beating wooden skyscraper

by Jane Clifton / 26 August, 2017
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The proposed Wellington wooden skyscraper. Image/Studio Pacific

Rules for the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper.

What makes a functional, pleasant-to-work-in commercial building? The brief from Sir Robert Jones to Wellington architects Studio Pacific is his master list of must-haves.

1. No view-blocking corner columns. Jones says there’s no structural reason to have columns in corners. 

2. The lifts and foyer are in the building’s centre, not, as is usual, at one end. This makes for better function and flow.

3. There’s an open deck on the third level. Jones regards access to open air and views as an essential amenity.

4. The front corner windows are curved, not angled, and there are large rear floor-to-ceiling windows. A building should be as light and airy as possible.

5. The lift ratio per metre of floor space is much higher than in other prominent buildings: one large lift per 1200sq m. Occupants should not have to wait long for lifts or sardine into them.

6. The ceilings are higher than in many designs: 3.5m. The feeling of space makes buildings more pleasant.

The RJH building has an additional feature, which the firm says will “hugely exceed” the new earthquake code’s standards. Dunning Thornton Consulting Structural Engineers is installing a heavy floating rooftop counterweight, which counterbalances the building’s movement in an earthquake, minimising it.

There’s quite a marketing story here too. Overseas, structural timber project owners and architects have hailed the lower carbon footprint of the materials they’ve used and the zero-waste production from sustainably managed forests. Pending projects in various countries feature a hard-sell on green virtue. What a pitch: our building will be made of carbon-sequestering renewables; how about yours?

The only potential flies in the ointment are that less-scrupulous laminate makers might secretly layer non-sustainable or protected timber in their products or will be careless with the bonding solvents they use – the latter has been a problem in past years, with some solvents proving toxic.

There can also be a lag in some authorities’ acceptance of any new technology. Even construction industry journal articles about the new technology typically feature sub-headlines to the effect of “Yes, you read that right: wooden office blocks.”

Among potential future showstoppers is London’s 80-storey Oakwood House, proposed for the Barbican, which was designed with University of Cambridge researchers who believe people will be more receptive to high-rise, high-density housing if it’s made from natural materials rather than the more alienating industrial steel and concrete.

The tallest timber-framed building on record, at 49m, is a 14-storey tower in Bergen, Norway. But Jones says RJH’s Wellington building will be taller.

He says his ones “will be the first faultless designed buildings [faultless in a functional sense] in Wellington and Auckland’s CBD. If that sounds excessive, then RJH invites sceptics to name exceptions and we will point out the faults.”

The RJH Wellington building will also distinguish itself from most other such buildings in not visually advertising itself as wooden.

Jones says the building won’t look externally as though it’s made of wood or make a feature of any natural wood inside. He’s not accepting any architects’ suggestions to that effect either, be they for natural wood ceilings or decorative flourishes. The point is to showcase the benefits of laminated wood in construction and design excellence tailored for the benefit of the building’s occupants, not the taste or preferences of the builders or owners.

Given the number of new wood technology high-rises being commissioned overseas, the Wellington building will not hold the “tallest” record for long, but its lack of obvious woodenness may remain its most distinguished quality. Although not quite log cabin-ey or Lockwood-esque, most of those so far built would strike someone of Jones’s tastes as ostentatiously woody-looking. Lendlease describes its International House in Sydney, its third timber-build, as tree-huggable.

The ultimate showcase for the heroic versatility of high-tech plywood is almost certainly Sweden’s proposed Stoorn – a 45m building in the shape of an elk eating a pine tree, atop a hill in Norrland. The tree will harbour the elevator to the elk’s innards, which will house a conference centre, an auditorium and a restaurant, while its antlers will be a panoramic viewing platform.

Were anyone to conceive of, say, a giant wooden weta for Wellington, they’d probably best keep this from Sir Bob.

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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