Rising head and shoulders over the city’s flats, Woodtek’s new office in Taichung sticks out not for its height, but for an architectural milestone as Taiwan’s first building made from cross-laminated timber.
Woodtek’s 5-storey office building made from cross-laminated timber
The five-storey inverted staircase design looks like something out of a Tim Burton fantasy world. To a certain extent it is. Assembling the CLT panels into a block took a lightning 20 days. (Woodtek claims the construction time can be further shortened.) Another 11 months was spent on landscaping. But the total time taken to realise this was less remarkable—a laborious six years to conduct research and gain approval from the building authorities.
Product manager Stan Chiao has been curious about using wood to build skywards since 2009. He calls CLT the ‘concrete of the 21st century’. The following year, he began a research partnership on the feasibility of such a development with KLH, the Austrian CLT manufacturer, and the National Cheng Kung University Research Foundation in Taiwan.
As there is no existing legislation on CLT in the current building code in Taiwan, Chiao found himself tussling with building authorities on its antiquity. He had to apply for a special permit as an independent builder introducing the concept of CLT as a new material, technology and construction method. Results from successive experiments had to prove the building could pass load-bearing stress tests on walls, flooring and roofs, as well as withstand climate changes, fire and seismic activity.
“The building code in Taiwan is very outdated and this has limited the creative development of the entire building and construction industry,” said Chiao. “We had very little support from the government, depending very much on our own resources and academia to help develop this project.”
He added that this material has to be tested for its fire retardant properties every six years.
In cross-laminated timber thick slices of wood panels are arranged in cross-form over one another like a large Jenga stack, giving it its structural strength and stability. CLT has a light carbon footprint, storing carbon well while in use and can be repurposed for other uses upon demolishment. It is about one-fifth the weight of concrete and takes less time to assemble on-site since panels are build-to-measure in the design phase. This reduces wastage and the impact of pollution on the surrounding environment.
Said Chiao, “Our intention was to introduce an environmentally-friendly, low-carbon alternative to the building and construction scene in Taiwan.”
Woodtek’s office is clad with an exterior wall, which, according to Chiao can be made of any material as long as it protects the inner structure from the elements and pests. The space in between allows warm air to circulate and ensures that the wood is kept moisture-free. The first floor sits on a concrete foundation, which protects it from soil moisture and termite attacks. Like all buildings, it has to undergo regular inspection and proper maintenance.
In 2012, the Ministry of the Interior approved construction. On October 16, 2014, Woodtek’s office officially opened.
Limitations in Asia
“It is a very special feeling to be working in such an environment. The smell of nature is different; no concrete or chemicals, as the four walls are made of wood,” said Chiao. “It enhances one’s mood and makes you feel more relaxed.”
In the meantime, Woodtek has other plans for CLT in Taiwan. Beginning with private residences first, the company will then explore other possibilities based on the market’s response. Currently Woodtek’s biggest project is a 4-storey residence spanning 1200 m2 of space, twice the size of the Woodtek headquarters.
Wood was once at the centre of Asia’s built landscape. Concerns with fire, moisture, and earthquakes discredited one of the world’s oldest—and most sustainable—materials. Unlike the West, Asia has been slower on the adoption of wood as a construction material. Chiao believes one of the reasons lies in the lack of investment in research in the university syllabus.
“CLT requires a whole eco-system of construction-related professionals to be trained,” says Professor Shinya Oku, a specialist in mass timber construction in the tropics at the National University of Singapore. “In this respect, one of the most critical challenges here [in Asia] is the lack of trained and registered Qualified Persons (QP) and Professional Engineers (PE), who have experience with CLT construction.”
The take-up rate of CLT in Asia also has another challenge: highly dense living environments, which lead to concerns over fire, acoustics and privacy. To mitigate these issues Oku suggests that it is better to consider using mass timber in hybrid form, such as timber-steel or timber-concrete. The latter hybrid for instance, has better acoustic and fire-resistance properties when applied in flooring.
Today, some architects in Asia are reviving wood as a more sustainable alternative to steel and concrete. The Building and Construction Authority in Singapore has approved the use of CLT in multi-storey buildings in mid-2014, and is working with property developer Lend Lease on experimental projects.
Around the world, architects and engineers have been taking wood to greater heights, literally. These projects include the 9-storey Stadthaus in the UK, Melbourne’s 10-storey Forte apartments, and Treet, currently the world’s tallest wooden building in Norway at 14-storeys high. Recently, Vancouver-based architect Michael Green pushed the boundaries further by proposing a 35-storey skyscraper for the Baobab, a six-tower development in Paris.
Images: Figure x Lee Kuo-Min Studio
Source: Panels & Furniture Asia