Two-thirds of Chicago was constructed of wood when a devastating fire ripped through the city 144 years ago this week.
The three-day fire killed 300 people, destroyed 17,500 buildings and paved the way for the kind of steel and concrete construction that dominates the industry to this day. In fact, Chicago’s 10-story Home Insurance Building became the nation’s first steel “skyscraper” 13 years after the fire. Owners and architects hardly looked back at wood.
The Great Chicago Fire also prompted new building codes in cities across the country that still hamper the widespread adoption of modern wood construction. But that’s beginning to change as recent research has found that new innovative heavy timber systems are, in fact, safe in fires. Moreover, these systems are environmentally friendly and can rise as high as 12 stories or more. Advocates of this high-tech wood construction, known as “mass timber,” are forcing regulators and owners in the United States to take the resurgence of timber-frame construction more seriously.
“This is the future of construction,” Robert Malczyk of Vancouver-based Equilibrium Consulting told us.
While mass timber has been hugely popular in Europe for years, due in part to more progressive building and environmental regulations, it still hasn’t caught on here. But a major victory for an American resurgence of wood construction was recently won in Massachusetts. The University of Massachusetts in Amherst received a variance to the state building code to build an 86,000-square-foot mass timber building.
The $52 million Design Building is believed to be the first of its size in the U.S. to feature an innovative wood system known as cross-laminated timber, or CLTs, which are used as part of a composite wood-concrete floor assembly.
When the structure is complete in 2017 it will provide major ammunition for proponents of modern wood construction who are quick to note that CLT slabs make the 2x4s in your house look like toothpicks.
It will be to wood what the Home Insurance Building was to steel.
“The UMass Design Building will act as an ambassador,” Malczyk, who is consulting on the project, said. “People will be able to walk in the building and have this moment where they realize ‘Wow, wood doesn’t have to be like in our houses.’”