Linking the uniformity in the architecture of new apartment buildings to stick framing

The architectural commonalities among new apartment buildings may be connected to how the edifices are built:

The number of floors and the presence of a podium varies; the key unifying element, it turns out, is under the skin. They’re almost always made of softwood two-by-fours, or “stick,” in construction parlance, that have been nailed together in frames like those in suburban tract houses.

The method traces to 1830s Chicago, a boomtown with vast forests nearby. Nailing together thin, precut wooden boards into a “balloon frame” allowed for the rapid construction of “a simple cage which the builder can surface within and without with any desired material,” the architect Walker Field wrote in 1943. “It exemplifies those twin conditions that underlie all that is American in our building arts: the chronic shortage of skilled labor, and the almost universal use of wood.” The balloon frame and its variants still dominate single-family homebuilding in the U.S. and Canada. It’s also standard in Australia and New Zealand, and pretty big in Japan, but not in the rest of the world.

In the U.S., stick framing appears to have become the default construction method for apartment complexes as well. The big reason is that it costs much less—I heard estimates from 20 percent to 40 percent less—than building with concrete, steel, or masonry. Those industries have sponsored several studies disputing the gap, but most builders clearly think it exists…

The advance of the mid-rise stick building has come with less fanfare, and left local officials and even some in the building industry surprised and unsettled. “It’s a plague, and it happened when no one was watching,” says Steven Zirinsky, building code committee co-chairman for the New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects. What caught his attention was a blaze that broke out in January 2015 at the Avalon apartments in Edgewater, N.J., across the Hudson River from his home. “When I could read a book in my apartment by the flame of that fire,” he says, “I knew there was a problem.” Ignited by a maintenance worker’s torch, the fire spread through concealed spaces in the floors and attic of the four-story complex, abetted by a partial sprinkler system that didn’t cover those areas. No one died, but the building was destroyed.

Cutting building costs makes sense. Still: if the costs of construction are reduced, this means there could be more money for interesting architectural or design elements. Enhancing the building in this way could lead to higher rents. (Of course, this assumes Americans are willing to pay a little more for apartment buildings that look good. I could imagine why this may not be the case. See the appeal of ranch homes – though not modernist homes.) Are there some developers out there who see value, aesthetically or monetarily, in helping their “stumpie” complex stand out?

I still marvel at times at this ingenuity in building homes and houses with balloon frames and its descendents: take standardized sizes of mass-produced wood and millions of dwellings are born. The pieces of this supply chain that had to come into place for this to be possible is interesting to consider as is the permanence of such dwellings that are based on frames of two-by-fours.

Trying to revive wood skyscrapers

The idea of constructing high-rises out of wood and other sustainable materials may just be gathering steam:

This week, an ambitious proposal for the world’s tallest wooden skyscraper was unveiled in Vienna, Austria. The 275-foot, €60M timber building will be built next year, and follows in the low-carbon footsteps of recent timber structures in Canada, Australia, and England. The idea of fashioning tall towers from the earth’s natural materials, and not concrete or steel, first began gaining traction in 2013, when the Canadian architect Michael Green introduced the concept to the wider world via a TED talk that has now been viewed more than a million times. “I believe that wood is the most technologically advanced material I can build with,” Green said in his talk. “It just happens to be that Mother Nature holds the patent.”…

Unlike concrete and steel, synthetic materials that together represent eight percent of man’s greenhouse gas emissions, wood has the opposite effect: it takes in massive amounts of carbon dioxide, an obvious upside when cities are growing ever denser. “One cubic meter of wood will store one tonne of carbon dioxide,” Green explained in his TED talk…

At the time when Green gave his talk, the world was home to at least two existing timber structures that could have been considered towers: the Stadthaus residential building by Waugh Thistleton Architects in London, which has nine stories, and the Forté apartment complex in Melbourne, Australia, designed by Lend Lease developers with ten floors. Both buildings were made from panels of cross-laminated timber, which is a form of engineered wood that was originally developed as an alternative to stone and masonry. Unlike typical 2-by-4s, these panels made from many pieces of wood glued together are enormous, around eight feet wide and 64 feet long…It’s also fairly difficult to get cross-laminated timber to catch fire, which appears to be the main concern of supervisory bodies in cities where architects are attempting to use the material in their buildings. Vienna, which will soon have the tallest structure of this sort, has instructed its fire service to conduct special tests on the new building, which will already be required to install more sensitive sprinkler system than those required for other towers.

As the article notes, the main feature appears to be the reduction of carbon use compared to construction with cement and concrete. But, this might also draw the attention of architects less interested in the sustainability but intrigued by another medium with which to innovate. It could be fascinating to see the mix of mediums within a single skyline – imagine the glass skyscrapers of today next to wooden structures that have a entirely different feel.

The wood-burning fireplace is on the way out, not green enough

Wood-burning fireplaces are more decoration than heating apparatuses in modern homes. But the New York Times reports that even its decorative or symbolic value may not be enough to counter the arguments against their use:

Hard as it may be to believe, the fireplace — long considered a trophy, particularly in a city like New York — is acquiring a social stigma. Among those who aspire to be environmentally responsible, it is joining the ranks of bottled water and big houses…

Organizations like the American Lung Association are issuing warnings as well: the group recommends that consumers avoid wood fires altogether, citing research that names wood stoves and fireplaces as major contributors to particulate-matter air pollution in much of the United States.

Wood smoke contains some of the same particulates as cigarette smoke, said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, the chief medical officer for the American Lung Association, as well as known carcinogens like aldehydes; it has also been linked to respiratory problems in young children…

Perhaps not coincidentally, sales of wood-burning appliances dropped to 235,000 in 2009 from 800,000 in 1999, according to the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association.

Fireplaces are akin to McMansions? I would be curious to know how much effect a wood-burning fireplace has on the average person or how much pollution wood-burning fireplaces across the US release into the air. Then some comparisons could be made between the polluting effect of fireplaces and other objects (like McMansions or bottled water). In addition to the pollution, we could also consider how much wood is burned yearly in fireplaces and where this wood typically comes from.

Beyond the ideas about health and being green, the article fails to discuss several ways to keep a fireplace without burning wood. One option: have a gas fireplace. This may not be too green as well – it does burn gas. But you wouldn’t then have the release of particles into the air. The second option, which seems to be gaining in popularity: purchase an electric heater that looks like a fireplace. I see numerous advertisements for these all the time. Lots of benefits here: you still get the heat, nothing is burning (wood or gas), they are relatively cheap, you don’t have to worry about a chimney and keeping that clean, and you can move the “fireplace” around fairly easily depending on where you want it. There are some electricity costs but you can still retain the decorative or symbolic value without burning wood.