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Wood And Styrofoam The Oldest New Building Materials On The Block

Wooden House

Wood and Styrofoam the Oldest New Building Materials on the Block

There’s a growing movement toward using wood for structures that were born in the age of steel and pre-stressed concrete. Specifically, wooden sky-scrapers are becoming feasible, thanks to innovations in timber processing. A generation of highly engineered wood products collectively known as ‘massive timber’ has made our oldest building material our most modern and opened architects’ horizons to new designs.

In particular, Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT), layers of softwood with the grain at 90° in each successive layer and glued together with high-strength resins, can be manufactured in sheets up to 50cm thick. This has enabled the construction of multi-storey residential buildings made entirely of timer products.

In 2009 a nine-storey building, the Stadthaus, in Hackney, was manufactured y Waucgh Thistleton architects, who billed it as ‘the world’s tallest modern timber building.’ That prize now belongs to Melbourne’s 10-storey Forte tower, which opened last year, and Danish architect CF Moller has plans for a 34-storey wooden skyscraper in Stockholm.

CLT – sometimes referred to as ‘jumbo ply,’ for obvious reasons – is also popular in bespoke homes which allow architects to play with form and function in new ways. ‘Timber, despite being the world’s oldest construction material, is now the most modern,’ says Alex de Rijke, a director of London-based dRMM architects. ‘It has undergone a renaissance in terms of processing and manufacturing of engineered timber,’ going on to point out that ‘as opposed to just building with joists and planks… it’s now a whole family of very sophisticated, high-performance engineered products. CLT is “the new concrete”. It’s a whole new ball game.’

An additional appeal of CLT and similar products is the reduced cost and footprint. Mr. De Rijke explains, ‘CLT is very good value as you have the structure and the finish in a short period of time and need for minimal foundations because of less weight’ than concrete or brick buildings.

So much for the new concrete. What about the old concrete? In an age of high-performance plywood and 3d printed homes, is there still a place for concrete?

According to Shannon and Lesa Cockrell, there is – if it’s sandwiched in Styrofoam.

In Hudson, Texas, the two high school teachers have built a home from something that sounds very impractical. Their 1,400 square foot home will cost under $100, 000 in total, because it’s made of Styrofoam.

In fact, a purely Styrofoam house would obviously be highly impractical – the Cockrell’s will be using the Styrofoam as a mould for poured concrete with steel reinforcement, a venerable building technique. What’s new is the control that building this way gives the small builder. The Styrofoam blocks the Cockrell’s will use are similar to toy plastic bricks like Lego™ - teeth in the top of each block slip into notches in the base of the next layer. When the walls are built this way, concrete will be poured in.

‘We decided this is something we want to do,’ Shannon Cockrell told local news channel KTRE-TV, ‘to one: help our environment, and two: to make it economically possible for all of us to afford housing. It’s safer, it’s more secure [and] you get better energy efficiency.’

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