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Sir Bob Jones goes green with plans to build world's tallest wooden skyscraper

Sir Bob Jones. Illustration/Anthony Ellison

Sir Robert Jones can point to a multitude of design flaws in commercial buildings, but now he’s about to build a couple of towers of his own using a radical green design. 

Stand with Sir Robert Jones in his central Wellington office and he can point out grievous faults with most of the surrounding buildings – including his own.

It’s fair to say he simply can’t stop himself. “Look at this concrete column, right in the corner,” he says, starting with the space above his desk. “Why put a column there, right in the middle of the view? There’s no reason. Just thoughtless.”

He indicates a building nearer the harbour, adorned with jauntily angled criss-cross beams. “Look at that abomination. Beams going right across the windows. The poor buggers having to work in there. Why can’t they have views, for Christ’s sake?”

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On he goes, irritability mounting, rounding on his neighbours’ habitats: miserably small windows, no windows, neo-brutalist concrete cladding, pointlessly angled balconies. No one should have to work in such badly designed, human-hostile spaces, Jones rages.

It scarcely needs noting he has little time for commercial architects. “We’re constantly having to fix all their mistakes in our buildings,” he says of his property investment company, Robt Jones Holdings (RJH). “The company annually spends many millions on correcting design flaws, where it’s possible to do so.” Pokey kitchens, no kitchens, inadequate provision of lifts, ill-sited lifts, grim foyers, entrances in the wrong place, no balconies, protruding fins that architects think are very fine but which needlessly obstruct or tunnel the occupants’ views – the list goes on.

The proposed Wellington wooden skyscraper. Image/Studio Pacific

The benefits of building with wood

Now Jones is putting his money where his mouth is. Just this once, he’s designing and building a couple of commercial properties from scratch, in part with the intention of putting to full use a life’s study of what makes buildings work best. But equally, Jones wants to showcase the benefits of building with wood.

RJH is to build what will be – at least temporarily – the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper on the Leaders Building site, on the corner of Featherston and Brandon streets, in Wellington and plans to follow that up with a second in Auckland.

There was a time when the famously pugilistic Jones might have committed an assault were anyone to predict he would one day be so excited about building something out of a variant of plywood. But laminated timber technology is an emerging force in construction, especially prized for its earthquake resistance. At least 50 tall buildings using structural timber either have been built or are due for completion in various countries in the next two years, including a British football stadium. These “plyscrapers” are not rustic mega-Lockwood projects. They’re built of “engineered wood”: prefabricated solid wood, bonded by high-strength adhesives.

There are various versions. Laminated veneer lumber is long pieces of construction material made of multiple thin wood veneers glued together with the grain going in the same direction. The resultant product is stronger than ordinary wood but weaker than concrete. Cross-laminated timber is solid sticks of wood glued in alternating layers to form large high-strength flat panels, rivalling the strength of steel.

New Zealand has been in the vanguard of the development of this new technology. The University of Canterbury’s Pres-Lam system of prefab timber components tied together with high-strength steel bars is now a foreign-exchange earner. The Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology’s Arts & Media Building was the first to use it, and it has gone into several big Christchurch rebuilds, as well as major projects in the United States and Japan.

University of Canterbury emeritus professor Andy Buchanan, a pioneer in innovative timber products, says buildings made this way are just as fire-safe as those made of other materials provided they’re well designed, with the requisite detection, alarm and sprinkler systems and – unlike London’s death-trap Grenfell Tower – without combustible cladding. The dense engineered timber chars only on the outside but does not catch fire or conduct flames.

The winner of an international competition to design a 5000-seat stadium made entirely of wood for British football club Forest Green Rovers. Image/Zaha Hadid Architect

The Wood Processors & Manufacturers Association says tall wooden structures require fewer tradies on site, making for a less complex build logistically. And since large components of the build are prefabricated elsewhere, the site tends to be cleaner, construction is quicker and less noisy, and there are fewer trucks coming and going.

Structural steel can buckle in a fire or quake, whereas structural timber will not. New-generation timber products are estimated to be 9-14% cheaper than traditional concrete and steel and they weigh less, making them preferable for sites where access is tricky. Overseas architectural journals are abuzz with the design possibilities, the savings and the green selling points.

The RJH building in Wellington will be a first for this country in that all its structural columns and cross-beams will be made entirely from laminated timber rather than reinforced concrete or steel. The latter will feature only in the foundations.

As Jones notes, the steel industry is already in difficulties and the emergence of more all-wood structures won’t help that. But timber is a green, non-polluting construction material, whereas steel is the opposite, with its coke- and coal-burning processes, so timber is seen as the way of the future.

Jones says it’s time New Zealand stopped sending whole logs overseas and fully embraced this new order. We could save on steel imports and access a burgeoning potential market in China, which has embarked on an air clean-up mission, he says. It’s the world’s biggest high-rise construction market and New Zealand should be ready to supply it with engineered timber produced here.

The rise of wood veneers

Coincidentally, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is exhibiting Plywood: Material of the Modern World. The exhibition features the expected curvaceous classic Eames and Aalto chairs but also traces plywood’s uses as a high-strength component of aeroplanes, railway carriages, boats, cars and artificial limbs.

The knowledge that the sum of wood veneers is greater than their parts is ancient, but it wasn’t until the invention of the rotary cutter in the 19th century that the layers could be produced quickly enough to make the strengthened wood product commercially viable. Extremely thin strips could be rapidly and accurately cut from the log – in one continuous go, like peeling an apple – as a video in the exhibition shows. These improbably thin layers were then bonded together with the grains perpendicular, giving a material cheaper than wood but stronger and also capable of being fashioned into curves.

Its predominance in low-cost furniture and joinery has since given plywood, if not a bad name, at least a déclassé image. It was initially viewed as a cheap and cheerful way of knocking out sewing machine cabinets, hatboxes and the like in commercial volume. Its strength and lightness later made it valuable to the nascent aeronautical industry, notably in the construction of the landmark 1941 de Havilland Mosquito.

This usage eventually led to a reappraisal of plywood’s virtues sufficient to make it acceptable for housing construction. Prefab housing from plywood was a sensation in the US and a favourite medium for architects and inventors. It was also put forward as ideal for railway carriage construction – one prototype use that never caught on.

A 34-storey residential building made mostly of wood, an entry in HSB Stockholm’s architectural competition.

The exhibition’s most striking item is an 1867 prototype subway plan: a pneumatic (fan-propelled) railway, consisting of a big plywood tube, inside which fitted plywood half-tubes in which passengers would sit to be air-shuttled from station to station. The first leg of the plan was built and transported thousands of people, but the project was later shelved because of depression austerity. But as the Guardian newspaper points out, the concept bears a remarkable resemblance to Elon Musk’s Hyperloop.

The shortages during and following World War II caused plywood’s thrift value and versatility to shine, and it became positively ubiquitous until the 1980s, when even cheaper – though considerably weaker and less durable – products such as medium-density fibre board (MDF) and particle board crowded into its market.

Humans have been gluing thin bits of wood together for centuries: archaeologists have found laminated wood jewellery, boxes and other artefacts in Egypt dating from 2600 BC. But it was an exacting labour of love by hand.

British engineer and naval architect Samuel Bentham was an early patent applicant for a wood-laminating process in the late 1700s, believing in the superior strength of layering opposing wood grains. But it wasn’t until 50 years later that Swedish industrialist and engineer Immanuel Nobel – father of Alfred – invented the rotary lathe, machinery that would begin to make the layering practical by allowing more speed and volume.

The Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat, a Chicago-based authority on construction and building research, is holding an international conference in October to help pool more knowledge about the technical possibilities of high-rise timber. It counts 21 buildings over 50m high due for completion by 2019 using structural-wood technology and says 50 major plyscraper projects worldwide have been completed, are under construction or are about to start.

As of this week’s Beehive launch, make that 51, going on 52.

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