Envisioning a future built on wood


Michel Languedoc is principal architect and director (Major Projects) of Montreal-based architecture firm, Aedifica. Well-versed in wood, he is responsible for many award-winning projects such as the Maison symphonique de Montréal and Université du Québec à Montréal Pierre-Dansereau Science Complex. 

Q: Where does your passion for wood come from?
Is it more passion or convenience for a Canadian architect to embrace wood as a design solution? Wood is the first material you learn to use for your needs. It is everywhere in your natural environment; aesthetically and structurally, it is used to enhance architecture. The Roman architect Vitruvius summarised three reasons for his preference for wood that still ring true today: Durability (it should stand robustly and be in good condition), utility (it should function well for users) and beauty (it should delight people and raise their spirits).

This malleable and renewable material remains popular because it is available practically everywhere on the planet. Its transformation is readily accessible to all craftsmen without the need for complex knowledge, equipment or tools. It is also inexpensive compared to other materials. As an architect, beauty and warmth are easily achievable in architectural design with wood and these virtues are fully recognised and appreciated by people.

Today, wood has become even more interesting because governments are loosening building regulations to allow its use in a wider range of structural components.


Q: What has your experience been like working with wood?

ML: I am convinced now that technicians and craftsmen raise fewer questions when you rely on wood to help you with your design solutions. Even when we build models to develop our concepts, we use wood instinctively because of its malleability and the warmth it brings. Aesthetically, in a wood-clad room, like a concert hall, for example, you get the feeling that it improves sound quality and provides better comfort. The musicians from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra told us that some of their best performances were held in wood-lined rooms and asked for a wooden environment in the brief submitted to us for the new La Maison symphonique de Montréal.


The Montreal Symphony Orchestra asked for a wooden interior for new La Maison symphonique de Montréal

Q: Wood has been dubbed the “concrete of the 21st century”. What is driving the global trend in using wood for tall buildings?

ML: Engineered wood is providing architects and engineers an array of solutions never possible 20 years ago. The reasons cited by Vitruvius are still very relevant today. In particular, “durability” has become really intrinsic to our design process. In recent years, building authorities have taken major steps to change building regulations to allow wood structures in mid and high-rise buildings because of the benefits for the Cross Laminated Timber industry.

Wood lobbies are presently very active and governments in Italy, Austria, Japan and Canada have been very proactive in building mid-to-high rise buildings (more than eight floors) out of wood and changing their regulation accordingly. These countries are not only listening but supporting these lobbies in their efforts to test, improve and export their systems whether it is for structural components, interior or exterior applications.

However using wood on the exterior shell needs a little more maintenance if the aim is to extend the life of the envelope for a few generations. While doubts over fire safety and seismic resistance have always been key limitations, new software is now available for fire safety analysis. We now know that these structures allow more than the time needed to evacuate a building in case of fire. New lab facilities for seismic testing are also opening up new possibilities. A Japanese lab has even simulated the impact of earthquakes on a fully-furnished high-rise CLT structure to conclude that the building not only performs better, it also reverts back to its original state, contrary to steel or concrete.


Q: Is wood the answer to the future of sustainable cities?

 ML: It is the answer, but not the only one. Technically, mechanically fixing wooden components together is rather simple. You need less sophisticated equipment and manipulation can be executed by a broader group of craftsmen.


Q: What are the characteristics of the Middle East that make it favourable/difficult for promoting wood?

ML: The Middle East enjoys a mineral environment that also carries its virtues. Culturally, its inhabitants are led to believe that minerals are longer-lasting, mechanically resistant, provide better fire resistance and a good protection against very hot weather, which is the reality. MENA residents may consider minerals as a better response to these first needs, but wood and its new technologies may surprise them. The next level is more interesting because it is related to the expression of their culture in the environment they live. Wood becomes an ally to demonstrate and fashion an architectural vocabulary at reasonable cost and maintenance requirements. Local architects and craftsmen can therefore prove their creativity to the advantage of their community.

If European countries are still developing their regulations to allow extended wood applications, it is reasonable to think that the gulf region has major hurdles to overcome. Firstly, to believe that wood is an appropriate solution for the built environment; secondly, to modify its own regulations. I have come across a few public buildings in the Middle East made of glue-laminated timber. The outcome is spectacular and well-appreciated by its users. I can imagine that existing regulations already allow for wood as a structural element and are not really an issue.

Q: How do you envision the future of the built environment in MENA?

ML: I think that MENA leaders recognise the virtues of wood and are now very sensitive to environmental issues. Some recent urban initiatives are bold in their efforts to innovate. I would be surprised if these leaders dictated the means to achieve their objectives for a better environment. On the contrary, they are likely to leave it to the private sector to imagine and innovate with the best materials. To this end, wood remains one that is durable, malleable, appealing and functional when it comes to representing one’s own culture.

A version of this article was first published in PFMENA (Issue 2)